Supporters of Measure RR like to say that BART is as old as Pong – the classic arcade game involving two rectangles playing tennis with a square.
“In 1972, Atari’s Pong was the state-of-the-art video game,” says BART director Robert Raburn. Nowadays, “you don't find an Atari Pong machine anywhere on the street.”
Unlike most Pong machines, much of BART’s original infrastructure is still in use. Power equipment, 90 miles of track, and the system for controlling trains haven’t been replaced since the system opened.
“All of this equipment is obsolete or at the end of its life,” says Raburn. Old equipment is more expensive to maintain. When it breaks down, it can cause delays. Errors in BART’s 44-year old computerized control system cause 400 hours of delays every year.
Raburn, who was elected to BART’s board in 2010, says that for too long BART didn’t keep up with its maintenance needs. Those costs added up over time.
He says that now BART has more needs than can be funded by its regular budget. “We need that deep dive into the system in order to really rebuild it,” says Raburn.
Along with other BART directors, he advocated to put a multi-billion dollar bond measure in front of voters in San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties.
(Raburn was delighted when he found out that the measure would be called Measure RR. “Of course RR is an abbreviation for railroad, and it could also be called a rail reinvestment,” he said. “It's also my initials for Robert Raburn.”)
Measure RR presents one of the most expensive decisions for voters in the Bay Area. The measure would allow BART to borrow 3.5 billion dollars to spend on repairs and upgrades. Bay Area homeowners would pay back those bonds, with interest.
BART estimates the total cost to taxpayers would be almost 6.8 billion dollars, to be paid back for the next 48 years.
All that money, to cover things that most commuters probably won’t notice.
“These are not sexy projects,” says Raburn. “Track, Power stations… they're not projects that I'll be able to show up in a suit and tie and have a ribbon-cutting ceremony over.”
But, he says, those investments are necessary – not just for riders, but for all Bay Area residents who want fewer cars on the road. Some of the projects the bond would fund, like updating the train control system, would allow BART to carry more passengers per hour.
“It's the future of the Bay Area,” says Raburn. “It's not just the future of BART.”
One of the most outspoken critics of the measure is Daniel Borenstein, a columnist and editorial writer with the East Bay Times. He’s been writing about bonds and pension funds for the past eight years. He’s also a BART rider.
“I believe greatly in public transit,” says Borenstein. “BART is critical to the Bay Area.”
In Borenstein’s view, the measure is a result of bad planning at BART. He says management should have put aside more money for repairs and replacements in prior years.
“All equipment over time deteriorates,” says Borenstein. “You build that into your ongoing costs and you budget accordingly.”
Some of those spending decisions happened in the past. But Borenstein says the new bond measure shows that BART’s management is still not planning ahead.
Borenstein points to the origin of the bond measure, a 2014 study assessing that the cost of necessary system improvements over the next 10 years would be 9.6 billion dollars.
The bond measure is meant to help cover that cost. However, BART says they plan to spend Measure RR funds over 20 years, not 10.
“That doesn't make any sense!” says Borenstein. “Don't give us a 10-year forecast, and a twenty-year bond plan.”
He’s concerned that if the money is spread out over 10 years, it won’t be enough. In that case, voters may be asked for even more money down the line.
“If the voters give you this, what's the next step?” Borenstein asks. Are you going to start planning?”
Borenstein sees flawed accounting all over the bond plan. For him, it indicates that poor management persists at BART. He says they’ve negotiated their recent contracts badly, and overcompensate their workers.
“They didn’t do enough to control costs,” says Borenstein. “Now, even though the Measure RR funds are earmarked for physical improvements, he accuses the bond’s authors of “carv[ing] out loopholes that would allow the money to indirectly go to labor costs.”
So, what happens if Measure RR doesn’t pass?
Director Robert Raburn says BART’s future would look “bleak.” He’s concerned that BART would “have to focus on safety, give up on reliability, and give up on any capacity improvements.”
But Borenstein, the East Bay Times columnist, says that if the measure fails, the system won’t instantly collapse. BART has other money set aside to do the necessary repair work, just not enough to cover all the infrastructure needs they’ve identified.
Borenstein wants voters to reject the measure. Afterwards, he says, BART can come back with a better one.
“Come back with a plan that has the assurances that the money will be spent where you say it's going to be spent,” says Borenstein.
If Measure RR passes, BART’s board will appoint an independent oversight committee to monitor its implementation. A similar committee has tracked BART’s Earthquake Safety Program, funded by a bond measure in 2004. That committee reports that funds have been spent the way they were supposed to be.
Measure RR requires a two-thirds majority of all votes cast to pass.
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