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BAY AREA AFFAIRS: As BART faces critical crossroads, now is the time to foreground the importance of expansive, affordable public transportation

Illustration of a BART train switching away from dilapidated tracks and turning towards a brighter, well-maintained set of tracks
Rachel Lee/Staff

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In a familiar display of political posturing devoid of reason or substance, Congressional Republicans focused their ire this week on a surprising target: BART.

The subject in question was $140 million — comprising just seven-thousandths of one percent of expenditures in the latest $1.9 trillion federal COVID-19 relief package — earmarked for a project extending BART through downtown San Jose. Republicans derided the funding as being unrelated to pandemic recovery and in service of wealthy tech leaders.

Not only do these claims pervert the importance of the extension project, but they grossly mischaracterize BART services and ridership.

Although not substantial enough to make or break the San Jose project, the millions in federal money were intended to ease burdens on local funding. Nationwide, public transit systems have seen dwindling revenue and plunging ridership, and the Bay Area is no exception: Since last March, BART has been forced to cut services by 40%, a reduction not expected to rebound until at least 2023.

As such, dismissing any funding for struggling public transit understates its importance and the severity of the crisis it faces today.

The South Bay BART extension in particular, running along a major corridor, would finally connect the three largest Bay Area cities with one track — a goal that’s been in progress for years and, meanwhile, has highlighted the persistent inaccessibility of BART for many riders.

Back in 2018, The Daily Californian criticized BART, lamenting its lagging efficiency compared to peer systems and questioning how well-positioned the agency was to adapt to growing urban demand.

That the pandemic has debilitated BART so critically reveals cracks in its business model — both in the hubs BART has chosen to serve as well as how the system is financed. Many riders who will benefit from the San Jose extension are dependent on public transit, pointing toward the importance of more transit-oriented development around the Bay.

But responsibility doesn’t lie solely with BART.

Now is a remarkably poor time for politicians to denigrate BART or spread misconceptions about its expansion that erode public confidence in, and support for, transit in the Bay Area.

As it is, support for transit systems in California is lower than it should be. A recent Cal Transit survey shows less than half of Californians consider expansion of public transit a high priority. Even fewer support augmenting existing transit services or reducing fares for lower-income riders.

As the Bay Area, and California as a whole, looks toward a more equitable and sustainable future, we must all advocate for expansive, accessible and affordable public transit systems. Transit is a public resource that needs public support. To argue differently today is to resign BART, already in crisis, to defeat.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.