Borenstein: BART refuses to make cuts, accelerates toward ‘fiscal cliff’
As California’s transit operators warn of a “fiscal cliff” ahead for bus and rail systems across the state, BART is accelerating toward that abyss.
Its response to plummeting ridership and a $1 billion budget shortfall over the next five years is to increase spending, hire more workers, run more trains and insist that taxpayers bail out the Bay Area’s largest commuter rail system.
Most BART directors won’t even consider trimming the district’s operating budget. It’s childish and fiscally reckless. And it demonstrates exactly why neither state lawmakers nor Bay Area voters should entrust BART with more money.
BART doesn’t deserve a bailout until it brings its spending into alignment with the new reality. There is no sign of the system’s ridership returning to pre-pandemic levels — not in the foreseeable future and most likely not ever.
Transit agencies across the country were walloped during the pandemic by plunging ridership numbers. But BART was among the worst — and it’s been one of the slowest in the nation and the Bay Area to recover.
Most BART directors seem to think that if they spend more money, riders will come. It’s folly.
As I previously noted, BART’s weekday ridership is just 37% of what it was before the pandemic. The state’s population boom has ended, and the number of residents is likely to level off in the next decade. San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are losing, not gaining, population.
Critical for BART transbay ridership, there is no sign that workers will return to San Francisco offices in anywhere near pre-pandemic numbers. Remote and hybrid work is here to stay. Which is why the city’s office vacancy rate keeps reaching new record highs, and the numbers will likely get worse as more long-term leases expire.
BART’s days of ridership glory are over. It’s time the transit agency’s leaders start scaling service accordingly. Yet, its leaders are making no attempts at a rational correction that would involve trimming budgets and rightsizing service levels. Quite the contrary.
The agency’s data shows BART is running 11% more trains this fiscal year, and plans to run 22% more trains next year, than in the last full fiscal year before the pandemic.
It’s madness. It’s little wonder the district is staring at the $1 billion projected shortfall over the next five years, by far the worst of any Bay Area transit agency, according to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Yet, BART directors earlier this month would not even consider budget cuts. Rather, they are entertaining a spending plan to increase the district’s annual operations expenditures, currently about $869 million, by 5% in each of the next two years — while banking on the immediate bailout from Sacramento and then on Bay Area voters in 2026 approving a tax increase.
General Manager Bob Powers is convinced that the money will come through from Sacramento because the transit agency is too big to let fail. “We are optimistic that we will secure this new source,” Powers wrote in an April 4 memo to staff. “BART is simply too valuable to the Bay Area to drastically reduce or stop operations.”
The financial irresponsibility and political arrogance are stunning. But not surprising. With most of the BART directors owing their election victories to labor unions, there is almost no appetite on the board for trimming train service and jobs. Instead, even though BART has less than half as many passengers as before the pandemic, it has more operations workers.
The one voice of reason on the BART board is Director Debora Allen, who suggested earlier this month asking staff to prepare an analysis of how a 10% budget cut would affect the district. “I don’t think we can just keep going along saying ‘more money please’ to the taxpayers,” Allen said. “At some point we have to figure out how to bring this thing under control.”
But most of the other eight directors were having none of it. “I’m looking to expand service to win back riders,” said East Contra Costa County representative Mark Foley, whose comments were perhaps the most divorced from reality.
The intransigence comes as BART and other transit agencies across the state hammered by declining ridership are warning of that “fiscal cliff” ahead. It’s a catchy phrase that suggests a plunge into bankruptcy is inevitable for many of them if state lawmakers — who are facing their own budget shortfall of at least $31.5 billion — don’t cough up money.
Some journalists have bought into that notion of a likely dire outcome. “As deficit projections soar, there is a concrete possibility BART runs out of money,” wrote Politico’s California team.
What they ignore is that this impending train wreck is of BART’s own making and is not inevitable if directors start applying the brakes, something they should have done at least two years ago. Their reckless behavior should not be rewarded with taxpayer bailouts.