New BART director wants to raise fares in San Francisco and end "A" Fast Pass

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Are BART passengers in San Francisco being subsidized by Muni riders and by BART customers from the suburbs? Or is it the other way around? And does it really matter, or should we just be thankful that people are choosing BART over clogging the roadways in this transit-first city?

These are some of the questions arising from an aggressive effort by the newest, youngest member of the BART Board of Directors, Zakhary Mallett, who has proposed severing BART’s partnership with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority to end their joint "A" Fast Pass program that allows unlimited rides on both systems for $74 per month.

And after he’s done with that, Mallett says he’ll take aim at the BART fare structure that charges $1.75 for rides of six miles or less, saying that San Francisco residents shouldn’t be able to access BART’s relatively luxurious trains for less than the $2 it costs to catch a Muni bus.

These are arguments that the 25-year-old Mallet started making last year when he successfully ran against longtime Director Lynette Sweet of San Francisco, with the El Sobrante resident snatching the District 7 seat that represents slivers of San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties.  

Mallett, who has a master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley, claims his stand is about “fairer fares” and ending “cross subsidies” among various transit riders. But BART  President Tom Radulovich -- the Livable City executive director who has represented San Francisco on the board for more than 16 years -- said his new colleague is simply wrong in his assessment, and that’s he’s pushing it in inappropriate ways.

“I think the Fast Pass works,” Radulovich told us. “I’d love to see us go in the opposite direction [that Mallett is proposing], with more passes for more parts of the system.”

Mallett’s basic argument concerns the difference between the "M" Fast Pass, which allows unlimited rides on Muni for $64 per month, and the "A" Fast Pass, which lets riders also use BART for an extra $10 per month. SFMTA pays BART $1.02 for each of those rides, so Mallett believes that riders who take more than 10 trips per month on BART are being subsidized by other Muni riders. Nevermind the fact that the reason people buy Fast Passes is precisely because they are a bargain for heavy users of the transit system.

“My ultimate goal is equity in fares,” Mallett told us. “My concern is certainly subsidies. I’m guessing that there are subsidies.”

Yet Radulovich said that some simple, back-of-the-envelope math shows that Mallett is wrong, as he believes the more detailed fare study now underway will also show. Radulovich said that given Muni fare-box recovery rates of less than 25 percent, it would cost the agency more than $4 to pay for the trips it is paying BART just over $1 to provide.

“If [Fast Pass A] didn’t exist, Muni would need to pull buses off of other lines and put them on the BART lines,” Radulovich said. “What I told Muni is that if BART carried all your passengers, you’d make money. So that argument [being made by Mallet] is really absurd to me.”

Plus, there’s the simple fact that all transit is subsidized by taxpayers because of the public good it does, both as a direct service and as a diversion for people who might otherwise add congestion to the roadways. So we asked Mallett: What’s the harm? Isn’t it good that people are using public transit?

Mallett responded that, “The harm is who is paying for the subsidies, and it is other transit riders.” In fact, he even makes the racial argument that African-American Muni riders from Bayview shouldn’t be subsidizing white BART riders from Glen Park.  

Yet for all his concern about fare equity, Mallet seems to have tried to avoid doing the federal Title VI analysis that would look at whether low-income individuals and certain ethnic or geographic groups of citizens are being hurt by changes in the fare structure.

In late February, Mallett began contacting officials with the Federal Transportation Administration with a series of phone calls and emails to get information and debate the issue, and that written correspondance was obtained by the Bay Guardian.

“BART needs a way out of this agreement and the agreement stipulates that its way out is to provide a ninety (90) day notice, period.  But depending on how Title VI requirements are interpreted, it can greatly hinder our ability to impose a termination of this agreement,” Mallett wrote to Jonathan Ocana of the FTA’s Office of Civil Rights in a March 5 email, apparently following up on their phone conversation.

Mallett tells the Guardian that he wasn’t trying to avoid a Title VI analysis, only to clarify which agency was required to perform it and to let BART move forward with termination if the SFMTA drags its feet on the study. But he also did seem to make arguments that such a study shouldn’t be required.

“I want to point out that, should this agreement be terminated, the ‘value’ of the FastPass is only impacted in that it would no longer work on BART.  That is, the price of the FastPass would remain the same and could still be used on SFMTA/MUNI services at that same price.  The only change is that the convenience of using it on a third party’s service (i.e., BART’s service) would be discontinued,” Mallett wrote.

Marci Malaster, deputy director of the FTA’s Office of Civil Rights, didn’t agree with Mallett’s analysis, as she told him in a March 14 email: “Once a transit rider enters the BART system, he/she is a BART fare-paying customer, regardless of the fare media used.  From the passenger’s perspective, a fare media currently available for use on BART (the Muni Adult “A” FastPass) would no longer be available for use on BART.  Since this effectively results in a fare increase, BART would need to conduct a fare equity analysis to determine whether elimination of this fare media would result in a disparate impact.  In addition to Title VI concerns, Federal transit law requires a public participation process when a fare is increased.”

That seems clear enough, but Mallett didn’t let it go, responding to Malaster by writing, “the mixed messages I have received in my discussions with FTA staff prior to receiving the below response from you makes this determination somewhat suspect in my mind. Among other things I suspect is that my arguments/viewpoints that I articulated to Mr. Ocana telephonically were not properly relayed for your consideration.  I requested that he allow me to speak to whomever the decision maker is and that request was never granted.”

BART General Manager Grace Crunican was apparently not pleased with Mallett for the tenor and content of his communications with FTA staff, particularly after BART got in trouble with the agency last year for avoiding Title VI analysis on its Oakland Airport connection.

She became aware of the correspondance when Mallett CCed her on one of his emails -- which he apparently forget about, writing to her on March 19 that “I am not sure where or from whom you received information about my communications” -- and when she was contacted by the FTA with concerns about what BART was up to.

“A plain reading of your inquiry could easily lead the FTA to conclude that BART was looking for a way to avoid doing a Title VI analysis in its haste to terminate the FastPass Agreement with SFMTA.  Furthermore, you called into question the integrity of FTA staff in your correspondence.  My letter to the FTA was intended to clearly express to them BART's intent to comply with whatever determination is made by the FTA and to nip in the bud any impression that we were less than committed to Title VI compliance,” Crunican wrote to Mallett in March 20 email. “I acted because the issue seemed to be escalating quickly, involving both the S.F. and D.C. offices of the FTA.  As you must be aware, the FTA is critical to our success and we are in repair mode following past Title VI issues.  We work very hard to maintain a good relationship with the FTA and anything that appears to be inconsistent coming from the District could be damaging to maintaining that relationship.”

But Mallett told the Guardian that his comments have been misinterpreted. “It is incorrect that I don’t want to do that analysis,” Mallett said, maintaining that it was simply a question of who does the analysis. “I was confused who does what. I understand now that BART and SFMTA have to work together.”

Yet he’s showing no signs of backing off of pushing for San Francisco BART riders to pay higher fares. Mallett made a detailed argument on his campaign website that San Francisco BART riders are being subsidized by other BART and Muni riders. He is hoping the current fare study supports raising fares on short BART trips in San Francisco.  

“I’m of the opinion it is an inefficiently low price. You get more for less, that’s why it’s an inefficient fare,” Mallett told us of BART being cheaper than Muni in San Francisco. “My goal is to efficiently price transportation.”

But Radulovich said that since BART’s inception, the heavy ridership in the system’s core has helped hold down fares for longer trips, which use more energy and staff time and create more wear-and-tear on the system, necessarily making them significantly more expensive than the average San Francisco trip.

“He’s making the opposite argument and it’s not substantiated in my mind,” Radulovich said. “The heavy usage in San Francisco subsidizes the rest of the system.”

Beyond just this issue, Radulovich said he’s bothered by the larger neoliberal ideology that Mallett is representing, which treats transit as a commodity that should use pricing to achieve maximum efficiency, rather than a vital public service that should be available to all income brackets in roughly equal measure, which is the progressive position.

“There is a danger of this neoliberal argument that ignores equity,” Radulovich said of Mallett’s focus on fare efficiency, particularly as it tries to privilege BART use over Muni. “People who are relatively rich will stay on BART and there’s something unsettling about that. Let’s push the poor people onto the bus.”

BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said the agency is currently working on renewing its FastPass agreement with SFMTA and that they are pleased with the arrangement: “We are working with SFMTA to get a new agreement pass and that’s separate from what Director Mallett has said publicly,” she said. “It helps comply with the city’s transit-first policies and we’re supportive of that intent.”

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told us the new Fast Pass agreement woud increase what SFMTA pays for each BART ride from $1.02 now up to $1.19 in the new agreement, but other than that, "We don't have any specific plans to make any changes."

Radulovich said BART has come a long way from its early days, that were characterized by the mantra “the rich ride, the poor pay,” because San Francisco and Oakland paid a disproportionate amount of money to become accessible by white people in the suburbans of Contra Costa and San Mateo counties.  

“For the first time in our history, we’re really looking at these equity issues,” Radulovich said, a study that Mallett said he also supports and looks forward to reviewing. But when that involves pitting transit riders against one another, Radulovich said, “We send the wrong message to people who want to use transit.”