As BART’s ridership fails to return to pre-pandemic levels and COVID-era federal emergency funds run out, the system faces a deficit of up to $300 million.
If these trends continue, federal funds will run out by early 2025, at which point, BART will be forced to cut costs by reducing train frequency to every 60 minutes, ending weekend service, laying off employees and potentially shutting down indefinitely.
BART is losing money and there is no avoiding that fact. As fair revenue declines, the agency is looking to the state of California for a financial lifeline. Much of the debate has revolved around whether or not this funding will help make BART profitable in the near future or whether it is an overreach of government. However, this frame fundamentally misunderstands the role of public transportation as a facilitator of urban economic growth, rather than a profitable enterprise in and of itself.
Starting service in the early 1970s, BART was created to help alleviate the growing traffic problems in the region. Though it underperformed its ridership projections in its first decade, the service reported year after year of growth from 1990 to 2020. Ridership had its highest period of growth between 2010 to 2015, reflecting the local economy at the time.
The BART has cemented itself as the most-used heavy rail rapid transit system outside of the Northeast Corridor. By 2019, 72% of its expenses were paid for by fares. This was once considered a great accomplishment, but now it is viewed as a massive detriment.
While it may seem that the only consequences of not funding BART would be reduced service and employee layoffs, the long-term economic ramifications on the metropolitan area are far more wide-ranging and devastating. Most obviously, the end of BART would result in far more gridlock traffic as car use would increase, boosting CO2 emissions and general air pollution as a consequence.
However, there are less obvious yet more immediate economic consequences than the ever-looming threat of environmental destruction and climate change.
Like many other public transit systems, a large percentage of riders use BART because they cannot afford a car but still need to commute, whether it be to work or simply to travel some distance.
Imagine someone in this demographic who currently uses BART to commute from Oakland to San Francisco for work. Let’s say that they work an entry-level job, but one that isstill better than any job they could have worked within walking distance of their home.
If, suddenly, BART were to significantly limit service, this individual would likely be unable to work in San Francisco, severely decreasing their potential economic output — not just in the short term, but in the long run as well.
Now, being forced to work a lower-paying job near them, this individual would be stuck in this low-paying cycle, likely unable to build the wealth required to purchase a car, their only outlet to expand their economic mobility given a failure of public transportation. As a result of this effect on the already economically disenfranchised, the downfall of BART would dramatically increase inequality and poverty in a region already well-known for its extreme wealth disparities and homelessness crisis.
Though one might ask, “I have a car. I’m not poor. Why should I care about this?” the reality is, cases like this are not just one-off situations, they make up a significant portion of the approximately 100,000 to 150,00 riders who use BART every weekday. Even if only 10% of those riders need BART to commute, that would result in a loss of 10,000 to 15,000 workers.
The effects of this loss would not be restricted to the workers immediately impacted. Companies, nonprofits and government agencies would feel part of the burden of this loss as well, as it would decrease their potential output. This would, therefore, hurt everyone involved in these organizations, from janitors to shareholders to executives to customers. The level of potential economic output for the whole region would be permanently diminished.
Knowing the repercussions of letting BART fail, how can we save the transportation agency as it faces a “fiscal cliff?”
The simple answer is that the state of California must swiftly intervene and give substantial emergency funding to make up the $300 million deficit and the agency must change its funding model to depend more on government subsidies rather than fares, a change that BART General Manager Bob Powers has acknowledged as necessary.
While the costs of saving BART may seem steep, a future with a weakened or defunct BART is one with intense air pollution, horrifically congested car traffic, even more rampant rising inequality, higher rates of poverty and a permanently decreased rate of economic growth in the region. This future would cost us far more than the $300 million subsidy needed to save the agency.
The state of California and Gavin Newsom must step up to prevent this impending catastrophe by injecting significant funds into BART because refusing to do so would not just be the end of the transport agency; it would mean the death of the Bay Area as a whole.