As AC Transit, the East Bay’s largest bus system, struggles with declining ridership and faces potentially major route restructuring, voters have a chance to elect to the governing board three leaders with solid public transit experience.
The district, which stretches from San Pablo to Fremont, has a seven-member board, two elected at-large and five by wards. This year, three seats are on the ballot.
Voters should reelect Joel Young to one of the at-large seats; back transit planner Sarah Syed in Ward 3, covering Alameda and parts of Oakland and San Leandro; and elect appointed incumbent Murphy McCalley to a full term representing Ward 4, which includes Castro Valley, San Lorenzo and parts of Hayward and San Leandro.
The three candidates are well-equipped to confront the district’s projected budget deficits and a state mandate to convert to zero-emission vehicles by 2040, at an estimated district cost of $2.4 billion.
Current ridership has recovered to 58% of pre-pandemic levels, mostly local customers who are often essential workers without transportation options. The district’s transbay ridership remains at only about 12% of pre-COVID levels, an indication that many East Bay workers with San Francisco jobs are still working from home or commuting by car.
Federal pandemic emergency funds have helped prop up the district’s budget. Unlike BART, which relies heavily on fares to balance its operating budget, AC Transit derives a large share of its income from sales, property and special parcel taxes.
Nevertheless, as the federal funds run out, the district faces three years of projected budget deficits, starting with the 2024-25 fiscal year, that are expected to bottom out at $36 million annually. Those projections assume, probably optimistically, that bus ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023. Otherwise, things could be significantly worse.
It’s why the district is about to launch restructuring planning to rethink its routes and service levels. The board will need to find ways to best serve communities most dependent on buses and consider whether it can afford to continue transbay service, which largely overlaps that provided by BART.
With those challenges, riders and taxpayers need district board representatives who possess strong transit planning and financial expertise.
At-large: Joel Young
Young, an attorney who has served on the board for 13 years, is one of the most knowledgeable directors. He’s well-informed about the financial challenges ahead and correctly sees the redesign of service as a key to bridging that gap.
His opponent, Alfred Twu, an architect and Democratic Party activist, lacks clear understanding of the financial problems. He’s right to push for housing near public transit, something Young concurs with, but that won’t solve the more immediate financial challenges.
We refused to endorse Young in 2014 and 2018 because of his use a decade ago of confidential district information to help his law clients employed at other transit districts. Young has since cleared his practice of transit worker clients, has not repeated the transgressions and now admits he overstepped. Consequently, we’re willing to give him a second chance — especially when he is otherwise clearly the superior candidate.
Ward 3: Sarah Syed
Syed, a transit planner, worked for BART and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and was a senior manager for Los Angeles Metro’s bus rapid transit project. She now works on equitable transportation planning at the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley.
Not surprisingly, with that background, she wants to improve AC Transit’s bus service to provide more to the people who need it most and in a timely way that competes with car travel. She also recognizes that it must be done within the budget constraints the district faces.
Her opponent, chiropractor Stewart Chen, a member of the City of Alameda Health Care District, failed to show up for his virtual interview. He said later he had an emergency but didn’t explain further.
Ward 4: Murphy McCalley
After Mark Williams resigned from the AC Transit board, directors in April appointed McCalley to fill the vacancy. It didn’t take him long to come up to speed. After all, McCalley, a retired transportation consultant, served as chief financial officer for the Los Angeles and San Diego transit systems and then as a financial adviser to transit agencies across the country.
McCalley envisions a complete rethinking of AC Transit, what he calls “reimagining transit post-COVID.” It must involve “a vigorous community outreach,” a recognition that travel patterns have changed and belt-tightening to match the available funds.
His opponent is Barisha Spriggs, a former labor union political organizer who now works as a substitute teacher. Spriggs doesn’t grasp the financial challenges or ridership shortfalls the district faces.
She wants to “at a minimum” hire more workers to bring service back to pre-pandemic levels. How would she pay for it? “It should be fine,” she said. “There’s a lot of money out there for transportation.”
Wishful, magical thinking like that is not going to solve the very real financial challenges AC Transit faces.