Tragic shootings, cracked eyebars, teen suicides, light-rail crashes and other problems have left many Bay Area transportation agencies eager to be done with 2009, a year one official called the most challenging in decades.
The year began with a tragedy at an Oakland BART station. Shortly after 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day, BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant II, of Hayward, on the platform of the Fruitvale station after responding to reports of a fight on a train.
The shooting, captured on video by BART passengers, made national news and prompted riots on the streets of Oakland. Mehserle is now charged with murder, and his trial has been moved to Los Angeles County. His attorney has argued he meant to fire his Taser gun when he shot and killed Grant.
BART spokesman Linton Johnson said the agency is “trying to turn tragedy into triumph” by increasing transparency and enacting new policies. In August, the BART board of directors voted unanimously to approve citizen oversight of the BART Police Department, and the agency is seeking a new permanent police chief.
This year, BART also faced a standoff with several of its labor unions that nearly resulted in a systemwide strike. Hours before the strike was set to begin on Aug. 17, BART management reached an agreement with its holdout union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555. Johnson said the new contract “put the agency on much more stable financial footing, but it was a painful way to get there.”
Johnson has been the chief spokesman for BART for nearly six years. He said 2009 was the toughest year of his tenure, and “was probably the most challenging year in the last 30.”
In 1979, he said, an electrical fire in the Transbay Tube shut down transbay service for nearly three months. The BART system also had to briefly shut down its service that year when its employees went on strike. BART was not the only agency to have a rough year in 2009. An unexpected Bay Bridge closure caused by a failed repair and a horrific crash in which a big-rig toppled over the side of the new S-curve brought Caltrans heavy criticism.
The repair that failed was made over Labor Day weekend, when crews spotted a cracked eyebar while working on what spokesman Bart Ney called “the single-most complicated project in Caltrans history,” in which crews cut away a double-deck bridge section the size of two stacked football fields and slid in a seven-ton prefabricated replacement in the shape of an S. Crews made an emergency fix to the eyebar, but on Oct. 27 high winds shook loose the temporary repair, sending a steel crossbar and two tie rods crashing onto the upper deck. Several cars were damaged but no one was seriously hurt.
Caltrans shut down the bridge for nearly a week afterward, sending commuters scrambling to find alternate routes to work. BART ridership spiked and freeways were clogged throughout the region during the closure. The eyebar has since been repaired again and Caltrans has assured the public that the fix, which is being inspected regularly, will hold this time. Ney said the difficulty of responding to the October failure was “completely off the chart” and thanked crews who were on the bridge working 24 hours a day during the closure.
Tragedy struck on the bridge on Nov. 9, when a Hayward man driving a truck full of pears lost control as he navigated the new S-curve and went over the side of the bridge. The truck fell 200 feet onto Yerba Buena Island and the driver, 56-year-old Tahir Fakhar, was killed.
Caltrans officials said Fakhar was traveling at about 10 mph over the speed limit when he lost control.
The crash, which was the worst of more than 50 accidents on the S-curve since it was installed, prompted Caltrans to add a slew of safety measures to the curve, including flashing lights, more speed-limit signs, reflector strips and a sign that shows drivers’ speeds as they pass.
The number of crashes between Nov. 11 and Dec. 6 dwindled to six. “Following the fatality, we’ve heard no more complaining,” Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin said. “It’s really unfortunate that somebody who was driving too fast for the conditions paid the ultimate price, but that incident seems to have kind of changed the conversation about the S-curve.”
In addition to the Bay Bridge problems, Caltrans lost a toll collector to violence in August, when a man shot and killed Deborah Ross, 51, at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza.
Golden Gate Transit bus driver Ersie “Chuck” Everette was also killed in the shooting. Ross’ ex-boyfriend, 46-year-old Nathan Burris, has been charged with the murders.
In San Francisco, it was a rocky year for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which grappled with a major light-rail crash and a rash of violence on Muni buses.
On July 18, one Muni light rail vehicle smashed into another at the West Portal station, injuring 48 people, four seriously. “We strive for zero accidents, so high-profile collisions clearly disappoint us,” Muni spokesman Judson True said. “But we hope that we’ve taken many positive steps that have begun to restore the public’s confidence in our commitment to safety.”
The crash happened after the operator of an L-Taraval train switched into manual mode in violation of Muni guidelines, Muni officials said. Since then, Muni has cracked down on train operators who fail to follow protocol.
Muni was also hit by a string of crime on its system, some of it violent. In September, an 11-year-old boy was seriously injured when he was randomly stabbed on a bus in the Mission District. Police now suspect the boy was attacked by transient Bobby Brown, who was arrested in connection with the stabbing of another Muni passenger in late November.
A fight between two women on a Muni bus in October was caught on video by a fellow passenger, who posted it on YouTube. The video went “viral,” attracting hundreds of thousands of views.
“Clearly, social media outlets can bring incidents anywhere to people’s attention much more quickly and in much larger numbers, and that was the case for us as well,” True said.
A string of suicides on Caltrain tracks rocked a Peninsula community this year.
Four students from Gunn High School in Palo Alto committed suicide on the train tracks between May and October.
Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said the suicides were “very difficult for everyone that works at the agency.”
The agency is working with local mental health professionals to address the problem.
Caltrain has begun providing extra training to security guards working near track crossings and has trimmed the bushes near the tracks. The agency is also taking a look at its suicide prevention signs to determine if they are posted at the most effective spots along the corridor, Dunn said.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Bay Area transportation agencies this year, however. Caltrain is partnering with the California High Speed Rail Authority to modernize and electrify its tracks, and the movement to bring high-speed rail to the Caltrain corridor has inched forward. The SFMTA was finally able to implement parts of its bike plan, which has been held up for three years by a court injunction, while BART moved forward on plans to replace its fleet of about 700 rail cars over the next several years.
BART has also made strides in a plan to construct an elevated rail connector between its Coliseum station and Oakland International Airport. While transportation officials are hoping 2010 will be less eventful than its predecessor, they expect some lasting changes in the new year. One of the biggest stories will be the construction of the suspension bridge on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge–what Ney called “the moment people have been waiting for.”
The first parts of the bridge are expected to arrive from China by the end of January. “These will be those photos you see selling in shops along the Embarcadero,” Ney said.
Also in January, the Bay Area Toll Authority is expected to vote on a proposal to raise tolls on Bay Area bridges by at least $1, with the possibility of congestion pricing on the Bay Bridge that would raise tolls even higher, Goodwin said.
Construction on the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel is likely to begin in January, and in 2010 BART is expected to begin work on the Oakland airport connector and the BART extension to San Jose.
However, a lack of state funding for transit agencies will continue to strain budgets and will likely cause service cuts beyond what riders saw this year. “We’ve got a state that’s flat broke,” Goodwin said. Funding new projects will likely be secondary to just “finding sufficient resources to maintain the system we already have,” he said. “That will continue to be a challenge as it always is, and I don’t see that challenge being alleviated at all in the year ahead.”