BART and its decrepit, 30+-year-old fleet of train cars has been a major topic of discussion the last couple weeks after a mysterious voltage spiking problem took a group of them out of service and caused delays and overcrowding throughout the system. There remains no fix in sight to the problem, and it's going to be at least a year if not more before we begin seeing any of the newly built Fleet of the Future that we've been promised for years now. But could BART be playing politics even more cannily than we thought they were in crying poverty and getting candid on Twitter about the age and sad state of the system's infrastructure? That's what the Bay Area News Group is asserting in this editorial, noting that compared to other public transit systems around the country, BART's train fleet actually isn't so old, and it's had far fewer breakdowns and cars out of service in the last seven years than it had in the past. So, are they just "painting a gloomy picture in advance of asking the public to fund a $3.5 billion infrastructure bond in November"?
Their 27-year-old communications guy who was responsible for that straight talk on Twitter has basically already said as much. In a piece he wrote last week for Popular Mechanics, he admits, "Public transit has always been about politics, and pretending otherwise is either willful ignorance or cynical maneuvering that seeks to capitalize on people's general loathing of the political process." And he points out that transit agencies can not, legally, explicitly advocate for their own bond measures.
But they certainly can do the next best thing and spend the next seven months telling us every chance they can get that the system is falling apart and needs major, extensive repairs!
The new editorial doesn't touch on the age of the tracks themselves the tracks are said to have a 40-year usable life, and while some have been replaced in the last few years, much of them haven't. District 3 BART Director Rebecca Saltzman was just saying to ABC 7, "I've seen track stamped 1968, so we really need to get out and repair and replace it."
But, they report that in the last decade, the peak of BART's mechanical failures came in 2009, and since then things have been steadily improving. The mean time between car failures at the time was 2,577 operating hours, and now that number is 4,640 hours, meaning that BART cars are getting taken out of service roughly half as often as they were seven years ago i.e. before the current population boom that is further straining the system.
Also, the editorial points out that BART's "ancient" fleet of 664 cars isn't exactly that ancient. 439 of those cars were totally rebuilt and refurbished in the late 1990's after hiking fares and earmarking $350 million to do that work. That puts the average age of BART's fleet at 16.7 years old, making it the country's fourth youngest transit fleet.
Do they still probably need that bond measure to pass? Certainly. But with all this straight talk, it could just be that they're skewing facts to play politics, the same way politicians do. Not to mention the criticism that it may be their own fault, this pickle they're in, after years of spending money in all the wrong places.