BART implores Congress for aid amid COVID-19, reinforces safety measures

BART station
Ronnie Ghose/File
Following the relaxation of the Bay Area’s stay-at-home orders, BART is calling for increased government funding and rolling out comprehensive safety measures across the system.

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As California’s coronavirus surge begins to slow, BART is rolling out planned safety measures and calling for increased government funding.

BART ridership has been on a sluggish, yet upward trend since the relaxation of the Bay Area’s stay-at-home orders, with ridership at the beginning of April consisting of about 6% of normal estimates and rising to 11%-16% by the first week of August. The system is moving forward with a 15-step safety plan announced in June, which includes ramping up disinfecting procedures, increasing train frequency to reduce crowding and publishing weekly passenger load charts to help riders make informed decisions about safety.

The cost of the new measures, as well as losses from low ridership, has taken a toll. According to the BART website, relief funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act will only offset 40% of the financial hit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A virtual “Save Public Transit” rally was held Wednesday, in which BART leadership joined public transit riders, members of Congress and transportation officials from across the nation to call on the federal government to provide at least $32 billion in emergency aid for transit.

BART general manager Bob Powers called the system a “lifeline” for employees in the area and stressed that the service must not only be operational, but also reliable.

“For us to put out the quality of service that (so many) need … and really to prevent the onset of a mobility divide, we need Congress to act now,” Powers said at the rally. “At its core, the economy cannot and will not recover without transit.”

According to the BART website, the system relies on passenger fares and parking fees to cover 65% of operating costs. The current fiscal hardship has led to significant service cuts, with trains running at half of normal frequency on all lines and closing at 9 p.m. as opposed to midnight. Without additional funding, the website warns, those cuts could be permanent.

UC Berkeley recent alumnus Lucas Meier, who spoke at the rally, said he depends on BART to commute to his internship, as well as for all other daily travel to places unreachable by foot or bike.

“Coming out of college with very few financial resources and high living costs in the Bay Area, I as well as most of my peers and countless other young people rely on this cheap way of getting around in order to meet our basic needs,” Meier said at the rally.

Powers added that comprehensive safety measures and sanitation infrastructure are in full effect across the system.

According to UC Berkeley public health professor Arthur Reingold, using public transportation in the Bay Area is “reasonably safe” in terms of COVID-19 transmission if riders exercise caution, wear a mask and practice good hand hygiene.

Reingold added that as trains and buses grow more crowded with the reopening economy, measures on the part of both the BART system and individual commuters will become all the more important to minimize risk.

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.