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Sustainable BART

A critical part of environmental sustainability, public transit must be sustainable itself; land use is a critical part of that

THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE ‘Q’ – THE REGISTRY’S PRINT PUBLICATION – IN OCTOBER 2012

By David Goll

During her first year at the helm of one of the nation’s most prominent transit agencies, General Manager Grace Crunican has concluded: Land planning adjacent to Bay Area Rapid Transit stations is key not only to BART’s fiscal health but the Bay Area’s economic sustainability.

Within months of taking the job, the 33-year veteran of the public-transport arena, appointed Aug. 31, 2011, called for a study of how BART-owned parcels in and around about 30 of its 44 stations could best be used to increase ridership and foster smart-growth development across four counties.

Of particular interest is finding the highest and best use for surface parking lots, viewed as valuable real estate that can support denser urban-style development, and identifying which cities are most open to that kind of project. Once those results are in, BART intends to pinpoint its resources in places where it can get the most ridership bang for its buck.

The district has 46,400 parking spaces in surface lots and parking garages at 33 of its stations. The study is being conducted on 350 acres of BART-owned land in 20 Bay Area cities for a cost of about $181,000 by a district on-call consultant, Berkeley-based Economic & Planning Systems Inc.

EPS will analyze whether high-density uses—buildings up to 20 stories including residential, office and any retail components—are possible on these sites. It will consider issues such as real estate economics, physical design and local land-use regulations and political conditions, Crunican said. The study is expected to be complete later this year.

BART is on an upswing these days, seeing healthy ridership and revenue increases. It plans to have new cars on its tracks by 2017, awarding an $896 million contract to Bombardier Transportation, a division of Montreal-based Bombardier Inc., to build 410 new cars. It’s the first thrust of an effort to replace BART’s aging fleet of 669 cars with 775 new ones. BART will pay 25 percent of the cost, with federal money covering the balance.

BART is an urban service, and we need to focus our growth in cities that will support urban-level services. We need to concentrate our own improvement projects in places where the local government will agree to increase the density of development around BART stations.

The district’s fiscal 2013 budget of more than $670 million is 8 percent larger than fiscal 2012’s. Growth in revenue from ridership and sales-tax collections are major reasons for the $52 million increase in operating revenue this year compared to last, said BART spokesman James Allison. That said, BART eliminated 252 jobs in fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011 and had six consecutive years of reduced budgets after the dot.com bust.

Crunican has an annual salary of $320,000 as BART’s ninth general manager and no set duration to her term, serving at the pleasure of the district’s board of directors. She previously was deputy administrator for the Federal Transit.

It is clearly to her district’s financial advantage to attract more passengers. That should follow from more efficient land use at commuter rail stations as hubs of high-rise commercial and residential development. The mix and density of offices, shops and housing could accelerate sales and property tax revenue for cities, she said, increasing development’s attractiveness to Bay Area public officials and residents.

Creating a sustainable path to financial health for BART is vital for the overall economic viability of the region, Crunican said. If the region isn’t able to maintain the 104-mile commuter rail service in good repair in coming decades, it would result in a net economic loss to the Bay Area of $22 billion to $33 billion over the next 30 years, according to a recent study by the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bay Area Council.

What is BART’s current weekday ridership and how does it compare with the past?

The fourth quarter of the fiscal year averaged 375,000 weekday riders while the average ridership for the entire fiscal year was also at a high of 366,565. BART ridership increased 6.7 percent for the fourth quarter compared to the same quarter last year continuing a trend of 20 months of consecutive ridership growth. The previous record was an average of 357,775 in fiscal year 2008. Looking back a few years shows just how much growth we’ve had. Average weekday ridership in 2000 was 309,205 and 310,717 in 2005. The growth projection for next year is 3 percent, so the rate may slow slightly.

What is BART’s fare-box recovery rate, or percentage of operating expenses covered by passenger fares?

For fiscal year 2012, it was 68.2 percent. For fiscal 2013, it’s projected to be 71 percent.

What level of average weekday ridership do you think BART could handle?

BART carried more than 520,000 riders the day of the Giants World Series victory parade. That was a one-time occurrence. A daily ridership in the low 400,000s would be a challenge, particularly if the vast majority of riders were using the system during peak hours. BART’s fleet of the future will have new train cars with three doors instead of two, which means greater efficiency on loading and offloading.

How important is BART to the Bay Area transportation system?

The same number of people—50,000—ride BART between San Francisco and the East Bay every weekday as drive the Bay Bridge. Our riders pay most of that cost, which means BART can provide a lower subsidy for this service than you have in many other transportation agencies around the country.

BART is conducting a study of how land is used around its stations. What do you hope to learn?

The [Economic & Planning Systems] study will examine the feasibility of higher-density development around our stations and whether local governments will go for greater density. This is an opportunity to analyze our [current] development patterns. If we can condense development into smaller land areas, we can reduce the cost of providing services to those areas. If we can provide efficient public transit to serve them, we can create transit-oriented development hubs that will free up our roads. It will be a start towards discouraging the sprawl we have had, which is very expensive when it comes to providing services.

What development potential do you see for land around BART stations?

When you think about the growth that has occurred around the Bay Area in the past several decades, it has tended to create less-dense environments where the car is the best mode of transportation. We would like to concentrate more dense commercial and residential developments in a few key locations along the BART corridors. That could create a situation where transit can make a significant contribution to the efficiency of the overall infrastructure. We also need to understand not everyone will be arriving at our stations in cars, so we need to provide good bus transportation to and from our stations.

Explain your belief that in many of the more suburban portions of the BART system, your stations could serve as hubs of density in those communities?

In many of our cities, there is only one BART station. This is where taller buildings should be located, including commercial buildings that could house professional offices, medical offices and facilities, insurance companies, or transportation-related companies, like consultants and engineers. BART could handle much of the increased need for transportation generated by these developments. We don’t necessarily want to force any city to have a 20-story building next to a station. It may be that two-, or three- or four-story buildings are more appropriate.

How are you leveraging your limited resources in this era of public agency austerity?

BART is an urban service, and we need to focus our growth in cities that will support urban-level services. We need to concentrate our own improvement projects in places where the local government will agree to increase the density of development around BART stations. We are not going to build parking structures where the station is surrounded by one-story buildings, and there is no interest in increasing density.

Where are you working to make this happen today?

We are already reaching out to a number of communities. In downtown Oakland, for example, the 12th Street and 19th Street stations are good examples of high-density commercial and residential development that favors transit use. But we are looking at creating greater density at the Lake Merritt and [Oakland] Coliseum stations. Business people in Chinatown and officials of Laney College are interested in increasing density around the Lake Merritt station and access to the BART station. Around the coliseum, we would like to see more office and residential development that would create a more pedestrian-friendly, 24-hour environment that would also be conducive to greater use of transit. There is also the possibility of new, denser development around the Millbrae station.

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