Updated Tuesday 7:05 a.m.
The BART Board of Directors is probably the most influential elected body in the Bay Area that most people seem to know nearly nothing about.
The nine members of the BART board play a huge part in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of individual passengers who ride BART each weekday as well as the legions who drive to work on highways that would be near permanent gridlock, were it not for the regional rapid transit system.
The board makes decisions that affect riders in large and small ways. It signs off on the agency's budget -- $1.8 billion in the current fiscal year. It approves big-ticket items like BART's new fleet of rail cars and has the final word on the district's labor contracts.
Answer: Board, board, board, board and board.
But let me ask: If you're one of the 2 million registered voters in the three BART counties -- Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco -- who's your representative on the BART board? My incredibly unscientific poll -- asking about a dozen people at a BART event whether they could identify the director for their district -- drew only shrugs.
If you don't know who your director is, by the way, that's not all on you. Your local news outlets, maybe even the one you're checking out right now, could probably pay more consistent attention to what's going on with all the stuff the board does. (Who's your board member? Take a look at the map at the bottom of this post.)
The lack of familiarity appears to be reflected in how people vote, or simply don't vote at all, in BART board races. In 2012 and 2014, for instance, about one in four people who cast ballots refrained from voting for anyone in the BART contests.
This year, voters will fill five of the nine BART board seats. Those five contests, along with Measure RR, the agency's $3.5 billion infrastructure bond, could have a profound impact on the transit system's future.
But the 2016 campaigns for both the board seats and the bond measure have become, to a large extent, a referendum on both the current frayed state of the system and the 2013 strikes that twice shut down service.
As to the state of the system: Any frequent rider can tell you that BART, which last fiscal year recorded an average of 433,000 weekday passenger trips compared to 345,000 five years ago, is overcrowded. Rush-hour trains are so packed that they often leave riders behind at its most heavily used Oakland and San Francisco stations. And those stations are more jammed than they've ever been. Average weekday exits at San Francisco's Embarcadero station, BART's busiest, have risen from 35,603 in fiscal 2010-11 to 47,643 in 2015-16, an increase of 34 percent.
Any rider can tell you that breakdowns are just one all-too-common feature of the BART experience. Among other frequent BART complaints:
- Some stations and trains are dirty -- "filthy" is a frequently used adjective.
- Fares are high, ranging from $1.95 one way on short hops to $7.75 for the longest run on the system, Pittsburg/Bay Point to Millbrae. (We're excluding the premium passengers pay to ride to San Francisco International Airport. Also note: youth and senior fares are a fraction of that cost, ranging from 70 cents to $2.90 one way).
- Crime on the system is an issue that gained attention after a fatal shooting last January on a train in West Oakland. That incident led to the disclosure that virtually all the "security cameras" on BART trains are decoys, not the real thing.
As to the hangover from the 2013 strikes: BART critics, notably state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, and East Bay Times columnist Daniel Borenstein, argue that the agency's board and management caved in when they settled the labor dispute with worker unions -- an agreement that included a 15.8 percent wage increase. They also criticize a four-year contract extension negotiated earlier this year as too costly and doing nothing to head off future work stoppages.
That critique has expanded, with Glazer blasting the board as irresponsible and urging voters to replace three of the four incumbents who are standing for re-election next month.
Glazer is backing up the talk with cash, with campaign finance reports through Thursday showing his state Senate re-election committee has donated a total of $24,000 to three board candidates: District 7 Director Zakhary Mallett, who was the only board member to vote against the labor contracts, and challengers Debora Allen and Jennifer Hosterman.
Allen is a certified public accountant, entrepreneur and business consultant who ran as a Republican in an unsuccessful bid earlier this year for the state Assembly. She's running against District 1 incumbent Gail Murray, a transportation industry consultant who is trying for her fourth term on the board.
Hosterman is a lawyer, real estate agent and former mayor of Pleasanton. She's running against District 5 incumbent John McPartland, a retired Army colonel, chief officer for the Oakland Fire Department and BART safety specialist, who is seeking his third term on the board.
(The two other board seats to be filled are in District 3, in which incumbent Rebecca Saltzman is running against former Moraga City Councilman Ken Chew and two other challengers, and District 9, a seat vacated by BART Board President Tom Radulovich. Bevan Dufty, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and former chief of the city's homeless initiatives, is running against Gwyneth Borden, a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board, and longtime community activist Michael Petrelis.)
All the races may be competitive -- it's hard to tell without FiveThirtyEight breaking down the numbers. But the race that could say the most about the future of BART and its board is the above-mentioned District 7, where contract critic Zakhary Mallett, now finishing his first term on the board, is facing off with three others.
All three challengers are Oakland residents: Roland Emerson, who describes himself in a Green Party questionnaire as "a working-class BART rider" who wants to correct BART's decline; Will Roscoe, an engineer whose blueprint for BART would essentially scrap train service in favor of developing a far-flung regional network of self-driving electric buses; and Lateefah Simon, a 2003 MacArthur "genius grant" recipient and politically well-connected social justice campaigner who currently serves on the California State University Board of Trustees.
But the main contest here -- as illustrated both by some high-profile endorsements and campaign fundraising -- is between Mallett (pronounced ma-LAY) and Simon.
The 29-year-old Mallett, who holds a master's degree in city planning from UC Berkeley and drives for Uber as he works to start up a business as a transportation consultant, has won the endorsements of the San Francisco Chronicle and East Bay Times. Both praise him for standing against the district's labor contracts.
Simon, 39, is president of Oakland's Akonadi Foundation, an organization founded by major Democratic Party donors Quinn Delaney and Wayne Jordan that focuses its philanthropy on racial justice initiatives.
Simon's career working in social justice organizations has yielded a collection of big-name endorsements, including state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
That backing is matched by fundraising that, while small potatoes in a state where donors have shoved mountains of cash into statewide initiative campaigns, is unusually robust for a typically low-key, and low-dollar, transit board race.
As of Monday, Simon's campaign had reported raising about $240,000. Most of the money has come in more than 1,000 individual donation, the campaign says, many of them in the $10 to $50 range. Campaign reports detail hundreds of larger donations from contributors including Olis Simmons, head of East Oakland's Youth UpRising, BART board member Nick Josefowitz and Silicon Valley philanthropist Cari Tuna.
Simon has also gotten major donations in the last month from two groups sponsored by the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, one of BART's unions, and progressive community groups. The Richmond Working Families committee has donated $23,000 in cash and in-kind support like canvassing; a parallel committee, Oakland Working Families, has contributed $16,000 to Simon's campaign.
Campaign finance records show Mallett has raised just over $62,000 to date. His biggest donor: Steve Glazer's campaign committee, which has given him $9,000 so far -- $8,000 of that in two contributions last week. San Ramon's United Contractors Association PAC has kicked in $8,000. Republic Urban Properties, which is developing a residential and commercial project at BART's Millbrae Station, has donated $5,000.
Mallett's other major donors are BART contractors, including Taber Construction, which has given $3,000 in this election cycle, and East Bay engineering contractor Kal Krishnan and his firm, which together have donated $3,000.
Mallett says that high among his priorities if he's re-elected to the board will be pursuing a BART expansion from Richmond up along the Interstate 80 corridor to San Pablo, Pinole and Hercules.
That idea "has moved further in the last two years than in the 20 years prior," Mallett said in an interview at MacArthur BART. He also champions in-fill development projects at MacArthur and down the line at BART's West Oakland Station.
But his main concern, he says, is finance -- and that leads directly to discussion of the agency's labor contracts.
"Labor costs are out of control and unreasonable," Mallett says. "The sorts of benefits we give our workforce from the top to the bottom are not heard of in most environments, and the work rules are woefully deficient."
Mallett says workers are not paying enough into their pensions and criticizes contract provisions that guarantee what he calls "nominal" rates -- currently $137 a month -- for family medical coverage. Among the work rules he wants changed is one he says allows BART train operators to work just 4½ hours in an eight-hour workday.
Mallett also wants to get rid of a policy that gives BART workers free rides for life -- and extends the benefit to their spouses and to children up to the age of 24.
"I think workers having free rides while they're working at BART is one thing," Mallett said. "But for it to be extended to as many family members as it is and to continue after retirement are the two big sores that I have" with the policy.
Mallett implicitly endorses Glazer's call for a new group of BART directors who will address the contract issues.
"People need to take interest in this election cycle and put into BART leadership those who they feel will be fiscally responsible," he says.
Simon's campaign focuses on her daily experience as a legally blind single mom who's completely reliant on BART.
"I'm running for my life," she says. "If the BART system doesn't work, guess what? I can't bring my kid to school. And there are tens of thousands of other disabled folks in the Bay Area, elderly folks, children and families who are actually relying on this system."
Simon's program for fixing BART starts with making the agency's finances more transparent to the public and making the system more affordable and accessible. But she says she feels that the focus on BART's labor costs and union contracts is divisive and counterproductive, and that BART management and labor unions have made progress in building a more cooperative relationship.
"I won't throw workers under the bus," Simon says. "I'll have a sophisticated conversation about how we work with labor and develop really good relationships with labor instead of pushing the media to have a visceral reaction to the very difficult work labor and management are doing to create some peace."
Simon takes issue with a view voiced explicitly by the East Bay Times that she's labor's "chosen candidate," on the ballot with a mission to unseat Mallett.
"Anybody who knows my career knows I've never been bought or bossed by anybody," she says. "The $500 million labor cost of a $1.8 billion budget -- of course we need to look at that line by line every single year in partnership with labor, in partnership with real workers, in partnership with fiscal experts."
Simon adds she won't accept contributions from BART contractors and would like to restrict contributions from those who bid on work for the agency.
"What riders deserve and what they need is a pretty pure voice," she says. "I want to partner with real stakeholders and not just folks who are interested in contracts."
There's one thing that Simon and Mallett pretty much agree on: Measure RR, the $3.5 billion BART bond.
Mallett says that while he agrees with those who have expressed concerns about BART's "historic financial mismanagement," the need for money to help revamp the system's infrastructure is a separate issue.
"We need to reinvest in BART, period," he says.
Simon gives Measure RR an unqualified endorsement.
"We need the public to invest again in the transit system, to make it safer, to make it reliable and to make it faster," she says. "This is an opportunity, but when we pass this measure, what I want to happen is to regain the public's trust again. That means we have to spend it well -- they have to see new cars, they have to see a habitual fixing up of the system every single day. ... We have to think about continuous care for our system."