Can BART address civil rights violations?

A transit map of the Bay Area Rapid Transit lines,


Earlier this year, the Federal Transit Administration determined that the way BART was doing business violated the Civil Rights Act. Because of those violations, BART lost $70 million that the federal government had set aside for a proposed line to the Oakland Airport.

Now, BART is trying to come into compliance with the law, by reaching out to riders. KALW’s Transportation reporter Nathanael Johnson dropped in on a community meeting to see what BART is doing.

*     *     *

NATHANAEL JOHNSON:  I’m at Excelsior Family Connections at the corner of Mission and Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, and the room is packed. The adults sit on one side of the room – in folding chairs – and behind a screen, their kids frolic. Surlene Grant is running this meeting, and she says this is the first step in creating a new BART -- one that will serve low-income and minority people. The loss of federal money, she says, sent a powerful message to BART leaders:

SURLENE GRANT: And so they basically had their hand slapped.

The only way BART can determine how to serve these riders is to communicate with them. The question is how. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the people the system is failing are often the people who don’t know how to squeak. So Grant says BART needs to get them involved and informed.

GRANT: Where they get their information. If they get it from church, putting a thing in the church bulletin if they get it from the ethnic press than putting an ad in the ethnic press. Whatever works, because they haven’t done it in the past and they need to do it now.

Judging by the number of people left without seats, BART is reaching people now. Many in the room wear BART headsets that allow them to hear what’s being said translated into Spanish or Chinese.

Grant explains that the purpose of this meeting is to come up with ideas that will allow BART to communicate better. The crowd offers one suggestion after another. They all get written up on a big piece of butcher paper at the front of the room.

After half an hour, Molly Burke, a community relations representative for BART, is satisfied:

MOLLY BURKE: We’re just really happy to get the community input tonight, you can’t see it on the radio, but we have a full wall of comments, and good contributions that will turn into a public participation plan that will guide BART in the future.

JOHNSON: And are you confident that BART will take this and listen and change based on this?

BURKE: Oh we will, we will. We are serious about this, we understand how important this is and the time has come.

Most of the people here seem to think this really will make a difference in the choices BART makes. Martha Rendon, who lives in this neighborhood, says she expects it.

MARTHA RENDON: Definitely, I think especially for this community that’s Spanish-speaking. A lot of us don’t speak English, this meeting will help us that cannot communicate with the general public.

But some people here are disappointed, like the ones who came hoping to get assurance of reforms. Before the meeting ends, a woman in the back raises her voice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Why don’t you have a Fast Pass for low-income people? Just like there is a Fast Pass especially for low-income people, because I know on the bus there is one, so why doesn’t BART have one?

BART’s Molly Burke tells her there’s no discount for low-income people, but there is a significant discount for seniors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But the seniors they barely use the BART, it is the low income people who really use the BART. So why don’t we get a discount?

Ultimately these are the kinds of questions that BART – and everyone who uses public transit – will have to answer. Can low-income people get a discount? And what trade-offs would the system have to make to recoup that money?

BART will take the suggestions from these meetings and turn them into a public participation plan. We’ll get to see that sometime next year. Once the transit system has a plan, it will start the real work to figure out what the people – all the people – want from their trains.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Nathanael Johnson.

BART is still looking for input – you can fill out their survey if you’d like to contribute. And we'd like to hear your input as well -- what do you think BART should do to bring underserved people into the planning process? Give us a call at 415-264-7106.