The BART Board of Directors is one of those public entities that is rarely noticed by the public except during a crisis. After Hayward resident Oscar Grant was shot and killed on the Fruitvale BART platform by agency police officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009, BART board meetings were packed for weeks by angry activists, local politicians, and Grant family members, and BART board members made frequent appearances on local news shows. But while the BART board is one of only three elected transit boards in the nation — AC Transit is another one — board meetings are generally held midday in a largely empty room in the Oakland Kaiser Building, few Bay Area residents are able to name a single director, and board elections get little notice near the bottom of the ballot.
That said, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors is one of the most important public bodies in the region, controlling a $672 million budget that drives the backbone of the Bay Area’s transportation system. And this year, elections for two board seats are among the most competitive the district has seen in years.
BART’s District 3, which includes parts of Berkeley, Orinda, Moraga, North Oakland, and San Leandro, is guaranteed a new board member this election after the incumbent, Bob Franklin, resigned in order to take a managerial job with the agency. The BART board unanimously selected Mary King, AC Transit’s former interim executive director, to take Franklin’s place, but only under the agreement that she would not seek election for a full term.
Three candidates — retired attorney Fred Wright Lopez, environmental policy manager Rebecca Saltzman, and rail transit manager Anthony Pegram — are running in the November election to represent the district. Saltzman, a government affairs manager for the California League of Conservation Voters and former Oakland blogger, has the runaway edge in this race in terms of endorsements — which are all-important in lesser-noticed, down-ballot elections. She has swept the Democratic and Green Party endorsements, is supported by two important labor unions (Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555 and AFSCME Local 3993), has the backing of the two more influential Democratic clubs in Oakland (Metropolitan Greater Oakland Democratic Club and Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club) as well as two sitting BART Board members, Tom Radulovich and Robert Raburn. She also has the support of five councilmembers in Berkeley, four in Oakland, and three in San Leandro. In sharp contrast, neither Pegram nor Lopez list any endorsements.
Saltzman said that her main issue in the campaign is what she calls “the huge unfunded maintenance liability BART has,” which she puts at $7.5 billion. “The system is more than forty years old, and the trains, tracks, computer systems, escalators, elevators, and stations must be replaced or repaired,” she said. “If BART does not address these maintenance needs, the system may not continue to be as reliable as it is today.” Saltzman also criticizes the current schedule of BART board meetings, including holding them at 9 a.m. on weekday mornings, and of having “a history of holding unnoticed meetings.”
Pegram, meanwhile, has the most experience with the internal workings of BART. A licensed civil engineer, he currently serves as a principal contract specialist for the district, and has worked on such BART projects as the Oakland Airport Extension and the East Contra Costa County Extension. Pegram also said he’s “a strong proponent of improving sub-contracting opportunities for all small-, women-, and minority-owned disadvantaged business enterprises,” an issue that has been a sore point with some BART critics. He cites his engineering experience as his best asset for promoting his priorities if elected to the BART board, which he lists, among others, as improvements to the safety and cleanliness of BART trains and stations as well as maintenance of the district’s “aging infrastructure.”
Lopez, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Policy Advisory Council, is visually impaired and would be one of the few disabled persons to serve on a major Bay Area governmental body if he is elected. He lists reducing crime and improving safety, cleaning up BART, and making the system accessible as his three priorities, but his most novel suggestion involves economics. Lopez proposes establishing a BART beverage train car as a way to generate additional funds for the district budget.
Incumbents normally have the advantage in down-ballot races, but that might not be the case this year for BART Board member Lynette Sweet, who represents District 7. Although San Francisco has the smallest number of county residents in the BART system (805,000), it has three resident board members, including Sweet. And after Contra Costa County residents pushed for local representation and argued that their board representation was diluted among five districts, the BART board reduced the number of districts in the county to four following the 2010 census, leaving Sweet in a district that is some 83 percent East Bay (60 percent of which is in West Contra Costa County). Running from El Cerrito and Richmond to West Oakland through the MacArthur Station area, with only small portions of downtown San Francisco and Balboa Park, District 7 is the only BART district that spans the bay.
Three East Bay challengers — former Oakland Port Commissioner Margaret Gordon, city and transportation planner Zakhary Mallett, and League of California Cities president and former Pinole mayor Maria Alegria — are vying to unseat Sweet, who has represented the district for the past nine years.
Margaret Gordon is a passionate community activist whose years of experience in environmental health advocacy — much of it aimed at the Port of Oakland — translated well to her five years of work as a port commissioner. Although BART is already one of the more environmentally friendly alternatives in Bay Area transportation, Gordon continues that advocacy in her campaign, pushing for sound walls around the BART tracks in West Oakland, for example, to “reduce the noise level on 7th Street,” and even calling for BART to fulfill its original promise to underground the tracks in that area.
Both Alegria and Mallett have specific transportation-related credentials. Alegria served on boards of the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority and the Western Contra Costa Transit Authority, while Mallett has a master’s degree from UC Berkeley in city planning with an emphasis on transportation planning.
Mallett’s academic and technical background comes out in interviews and debates, and he sounds more like a planner than a politician. His key planning proposal is a BART extension to the section of West Contra Costa County north of Richmond, an area he calls “the region’s single most-congested travel corridor.” Mallett is also quick to criticize Sweet, charging that she is “clearly out of touch with the East Bay community.”
Alegria is also running on the strength of her East Bay credentials, saying, “We need regional representation that is in touch with the 83 percent of the district. I feel we’ve been neglected. Our stations are dirty. Our elevators don’t work. The neighborhoods surrounding BART suffer from noise and dust pollution. If we want a first class transit system, we can’t treat 82 percent of the district as third-class citizens.”
Sweet — an experienced campaigner who demonstrates polish and confidence in campaign debates — is running on her ten-year record as a BART board member, noting that while many other governmental entities are foundering in the depressed economy, BART is into its third straight year of operational surplus. She denies neglecting her East Bay constituents, and, in fact, her most memorable involvement on the BART board involved an East Bay matter. Following Grant’s shooting, Sweet was one of two BART board members (along with Radulovich) to push for police reforms, including increased training and a Citizen Review Board. Currently the chair of the Police Review Committee on the BART Board, Sweet said, “Never again should we have an unarmed man slain by a BART police officer.”