I am a big fan of public transit, taking the train regularly to Sacramento and San Francisco to visit family, taking BART to the Symphony or to museums in San Francisco, riding Light Rail and Muni in San Jose and San Francisco. But I am somewhat reluctant to recommend these services to some of my more fastidious friends, since CalTrain and BART in particular are more than a little grungy.
In the past 20 years I have traveled on public transit systems made similar to BART, and have seen cars and stations in Taipei, Atlanta, and Washington DC get upgrade after upgrade. In the same period of time nothing has happened to BART, except that the forty-year-old cars have gotten dirtier, smellier, and more worn. The windows have become so scratched that it is almost impossible to read the signage at each station (especially since very few of the station signs are lighted) and there has never been any interior electronic signage to tell where you are. And the rails have become noisier and noisier, to the point where going around a bend in a tunnel is now acutely painful to the ears. The noise is so intense that any on-board announcements are completely indecipherable. When I take BART to San Francisco, I wear earplugs.
So why can’t we update BART as often as Taipei updates its MRT? Of course, we have an absurd idea that public transportation should be self-supporting, and with fares kept low there is little money for upgrades and maintenance. Yet there are other public services that do not pretend to be self-supporting, and yet manage to stay up to date. We don’t expect libraries to be self-supporting through their collection of fines, or schools to be self-supporting through sales of tickets to sports events and concerts. Why can’t…. but wait a minute! What do schools and libraries have that BART doesn’t have? They have Friends! They have Foundations!
What if we had a BART Maintenance Foundation, similar to the Los Altos Educational Foundation which maintains our high level of school quality , and a Friends of CalTrain, as effective and dedicated as our Friends of the Los Altos Library? And what if we could inveigle some of our more affluent local residents to become involved? Just think what we could do!
Latest estimates for total electrification of CalTrain come to about $1.76 billion. That’s a paltry 3% of Mark Zuckerberg’s current net worth. A donation to the Friends of CalTrain would certainly earn him a bunch of LIKE’s and maybe a free engineer’s cap to wear when the hoody is in the wash.
New BART cars are currently running about $3.2 million per car. Why not invite some of our technocrats to purchase naming rights to a BART car? Certainly more prestigious than buying a Lamborghini that you can only drive in your underground garage because it is too expensive to crash test. And think of all the rainbow-framed Windows sending out a subliminal message!
Upgrading the infrastructure of BART is a bit pricier – $3.5 billion per current estimate – but there are lots of opportunities for appropriate philanthropy. $915 million is needed to update the control system; maybe one of those companies working on self-driving cars could help under-write the self-driving BART system. Another $432 million will renovate the Maintenance Center in Hayward. Might not another local company want to be LinkedIn for naming rights? That leaves 107 miles of track to be maintained at roughly $20 million per mile. Why not set up an Adopt-A-Track program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program which keeps our highways tidy? There could be little mileposts along the track: “If you like this quiet ride, you’ll LOVE our electric cars!” “Our software keeps your sales on TRACK!” “Trains or data – easy access is our specialty!”
OK, so upgrading and maintaining public transit isn’t quite on the same cosmic level of good-deed-doing as curing cancer or eliminating malaria. Still, this is an opportunity to improve the daily quality of life for an average of 430,000 daily riders. Who would like to step up?