Transportation Update: BART’s New Years resolutions and more

Find out what’s moving and shaking in the world of planes, trains and automobiles in this check-in with transportation reporter Casey Miner.

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BEN TREFNY: We’re joined now by transportation reporter Casey Miner for a look at what’s going on with how we get around. Hi, Casey.

CASEY MINER:  Hi, Ben.

TREFNY: What have you got for us today?

MINER: Well, since it is the New Year, I thought we’d take a look at what kinds of changes we might see with transportation in 2011. Let’s start with the big picture. House Republicans are trying to cut a pretty big chunk of money from the federal budget, and in the past week they’ve made it pretty clear that nothing is safe. That includes funding for highways, which is a pretty big change – normally that’s about as sacred as defense spending.

TREFNY: How much money would that be?

MINER: We’re talking billions of dollars. That money’s used for new infrastructure and maintenance, including both highways and transit. That makes it hard to commit to big, long-term projects, because everyone involved is worried they’re going to lose money. So it’s produced this sort of interesting political dynamic where you’ve got the Chamber of Commerce and construction firms on the same side as public transit advocates and labor unions – all calling for stable funding.

TREFNY: And so how certain is this change?

MINER: Well, they’ve already changed the rules to allow the government to raid transportation funds. In terms of longer-term changes, they’re probably going to take up the big national transportation bill sometime this year, and that will really determine how much federal money will go towards those big projects.

TREFNY: What about California? What’s going on here?

MINER: The biggest ongoing state project, obviously, is high-speed rail. And we’ve already seen a few changes on that front. Former Governor Schwarzenegger appointed two new members to the board of the high-speed rail authority. They both have business backgrounds, though not much experience with transportation. Schwarzenegger made this decision on purpose – a report came out late last year basically saying that the rail authority didn’t have a business plan, and that the future project really depends on them developing one. Governor Jerry Brown has been a big proponent of high-speed rail over the years, but he’s also coming into office with the goal of cutting the state’s share of the cost, so we may see him pushing for some pretty big changes.

TREFNY: And what about here in the Bay – what does 2011 have in store for us?

MINER: The country and the state are trying to figure out how to make do with less. Here in the Bay we actually might see more in terms of transportation innovation. There are a few cool things coming up. The first is that this year San Francisco is planning to pilot a bike-sharing program. You’ll be able to pick up bikes along the Caltrain corridor between here and San Jose, with about half the bikes in the city of San Francisco. It’s modeled on a program in Paris that’s been fairly successful. Minneapolis, Denver and Washington DC also have these kinds of programs.

TREFNY: So how does that actually work?

MINER: Well the logistics will depend a bit on who the city hires to implement the project, but the basic idea is that bikes are available at shared kiosks, and that you can either reserve them ahead of time or rent them on the spot. The idea for the pilot is to make it easy for people to go from, say, Caltrain to their job, which might be just a few miles away but not accessible by bus or on foot.

TREFNY: Okay, so what are the other cool things you mentioned?

MINER: One of the things people always ask me when I tell them I’m a transportation reporter is why BART stops running at midnight. And there are actually a few very legitimate reasons. They only have a few hours each night to do maintenance, and there are a lot of contract issues that come up when you try to change a system that’s been in place for 22 years. But the new president of the BART board, Bob Franklin, has made extending the hours sort of his pet project. I caught up with him the other day to ask him what his plans were. 

BOB FRANKLIN: As board president you get a little more spotlight, the opportunity to do some things that you don’t as a director. There’s a Facebook group I’ve been following, called “Make BART Run 24 Hours a Day.” It’s got so 22,000 plus members. It’s amazing how fast that group grew.

MINER: Franklin told me that extending BART’s hours is the number one thing people talk to him about. 

FRANKLIN: I’m hopeful that there’s going to be some change. That’s what I’m hoping for. I don’t think it’s going to be a dramatic shift, but hopefully it will serve people better. Even on a Saturday night to stay open an hour later. It’s not a major shift but it would make a big difference. Just a reasonable hour of the night so you could go out and not have to rush to BART o’clock, it’d be great.

TREFNY: That would be great.

MINER: Oh, absolutely. But it doesn’t come easy. Franklin told me that pretty soon after he was elected he spent a night cleaning a BART train car with a maintenance worker, and let’s just say it was pretty dirty.              

FRANKLIN: A couple of people threw up that I got to clean up. Wasn’t as – seems like, “Oh, that must be gross,” but wasn’t any grosser than the whole night. Lot of pickles and sunflower seeds and newspapers and spilled sodas. There’s probably a lot more cleaning we’d have to do in our system, to put it in a nice way.

TREFNY: So I guess we’ll see what happens with that – anything else on the horizon for BART?

MINER: Well, in keeping with our New Years theme, I asked Franklin what BART’s New Years resolution might be. Here he is again:

FRANKLIN: Usually New Years resolutions are for bad habits. I guess BART has those. I guess just to be more open and accessible, both in terms of people accessing the BART organization and getting to a BART station.

MINER: Now, what’s interesting about this is I also asked the newest BART director, Robert Raburn, what his resolutions were, and he said the same thing: accessibility. That’s everything from improving interactions with BART staff to making big projects easier to understand. So we may see more outreach and transparency from them in the coming year.