BART's Year of Turmoil Marked By Shooting, Financial Troubles

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In 2009, the "perfect storm" of financial hardships and safety concerns hit the Bay Area's public rapid transit system that has served residents for more than 30 years. The rough year began on day one with the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III by a BART police officer on Jan. 1, 2009.

"We started the year off on such a down note," said BART Director Lynette Sweet. "Anything that you can think of going wrong went wrong. It was the perfect storm."

The shooting was the beginning of a year of turmoil for BART, which also experienced declines in sales tax and passenger revenue that led to service reductions and a near strike that would have left at least 350,000 people to look for alternate means of transportation.

In light of the shooting of Grant, Oakland-based firm Meyers Nave was hired in February to investigate the incident, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives was hired last April to evaluate BART's police department.

Both of the firms' reports-which were released in September and August, respectively-said BART police officers were not properly trained.

Sweet said many deficiencies in the department's training program were addressed since they received the reports. She added that improvements were also made to the program prior to the reports.

"We're making it so accountability is easy for (police officers) to achieve," Sweet said.

Sweet added that BART directors and police are in the process of creating a civilian review board that will review complaints against police officers. The initiative to create the board was unanimously approved by the BART directors and is currently a state assembly bill, she said.

This year the community will also have a hand in the selection of BART's new chief of police. After Police Chief Gary Gee stepped down in August, BART officials began a nationwide search for a new chief.

Sweet said the board hopes to select a new chief by April. Until the position is filled, retired Berkeley police Chief Daschel Butler will serve as interim chief for BART.

Sweet said that unlike previous years, final candidates will meet the public so BART can gain feedback from the community. She added BART is also looking to fill commander and lieutenant posts after losing many of its top command staff to retirement.

While the Board of Directors and the police department took measures to strengthen the system's police force, BART continues to face a growing deficit. The projected four-year deficit of $310 million prompted BART to reduce service and increase fares last summer.

BART faces a $25.2 million deficit for the 2009-10 fiscal year, out of an operating budget of $642 million.

BART saved $100 million in labor costs through labor negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which had scheduled an Aug. 17 strike that would have crippled transit in the Bay Area. Sweet said that due to the four-year agreements made with BART, the union will not be able to reopen negotiations until four years have passed.

"We're cutting things that may not be as important as we thought they were (and) rearranging the budget to take care of core responsibilities," Sweet said.

BART Board of Directors Vice President Bob Franklin said there will be additional cuts to deal with the upcoming year's $25.2 million deficit but that they would not include operating service reductions for the remainder of this fiscal year.

"It's going to be a tough (year) financially for BART," Franklin said. "We're still moving forward. It's my hope that we can continue to offer friendly, on-time service."

At the last board meeting on Jan. 14, BART officials presented a proposal recommending the reduction of operating staff to 210 fewer positions for this fiscal year as compared to that of last year. But the board did not approve the proposal and asked staff to look at other options before the next meeting Jan. 28.

BART will have to make further financial decisions to address this fiscal year's deficit, but officials said they are hoping for a better forecast this year.

"(2010) is going to have to be a better year than 2009," Sweet said.


Contact Stephanie Baer at [email protected]

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