November 29, 2005 > BART
by Tina Cuccia
BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Director of District 6, Thomas Blalock was elected to the BART Board in November 1994 and re-elected in 1998 and 2002 to represent Fremont, Newark, Union City and portions of Hayward. He plans to serve again after his current four-year term is up in 2006. Within that term, he expects to see the BART Warm Springs extension project linking riders to Santa Clara County, begin construction.
But if you think throwing a few dollars at BART to extend its tracks is all there is to it, you don't know the half of it. Blalock says the main roadblock to extending BART -- anywhere -- is money. In comparison, the many far-reaching train systems in Europe are funded by their governments. "Here, the federal government limits money spent on BART and all public transportation," says Blalock. Funding primarily comes from state taxes and local sales tax which also supports other modes of public transportation, freeway upgrades and more.
About 60 percent of BART operation costs come from the fare box. That leaves little for capital improvements/extension projects that can cost in the billions. And fares can't simply be increased. If they prove too expensive, riders will simply find other ways to get where they need to go.
Warm Springs BART extension
The Warm Springs BART extension, costing around $650 million will take riders beyond the present Fremont station to a Warm Springs station (located behind automaker New United Motor Manufacturing, Fremont). The Warm Springs station will connect with other modes of transportation - buses, shuttles and light rail service throughout Santa Clara County. While the project is partially funded, construction has not begun. Blalock hopes ground will be broken within four years. Once this happens, he says the project will take about four years to complete. "The project is in a great state of readiness, it just lacks the money to get started," Blalock says.
BART extension to San Jose, Santa Clara and Milpitas
Another much anticipated project is the BART extension to San Jose, Santa Clara and Milpitas. It will offer riders service to San Jose International Airport, a project that the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is spearheading and hopes to get underway sooner than later. Again, the bone of contention is money. The project is expected to cost over $4 billion.
"Each year that passes, that cost goes up," says Blalock. While they continue to secure funds, representatives from VTA and BART are working together on "value engineering," finding ways to accomplish the same thing in a way that saves money. And working together is something that Blalock feels is key to accommodating riders, making it easier for them to take public transportation. "This is critical," adds Blalock, particularly as the Bay Area continues to grow.
"We need every service we can get to accommodate the people who are here now and the over one and one-half million that are expected to move to the Bay Area in the next 20 years," he says. "That's one and one-half million added to the six and one-half million people already here."
Accommodating riders means making public transportation easy for them. In order to do that, Blalock feels that the different transportation agencies need to work together - to have things connect well. "We all need to work together to provide the best solution for riders -- what is most convenient for them. We've got to connect it all up by offering buses and shuttle vans to all major areas."
For example, when riders have to transfer, Blalock says they lose interest because often the time they spend waiting for their next bus/train cancels out time saved taking public transportation versus their own vehicle.
"When you make riders transfer, you lose them," Blalock said. "They'll stay in their car." That means more congestion on the freeways. He feels that connections from ACE (Altamont Commuter Express), Capitol Corridor trains or BART to buses that take riders to their destination must be quick and easy.
A licensed civil engineer, Blalock is passionate about his work which extends beyond the walls of the BART board room. He has an extensive background in planning, engineering and administration and his professional career spans 43 years working for three cities (Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Fremont). He served as a traffic engineer in Sunnyvale and spent 20 years as public works director of Fremont.
His involvement in transportation issues to date includes serving as Board President and Chair of BART's Engineering and Operations Committee, membership on the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board and member of the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency, the Oakland Airport Connector Committees, and serving on the Policy Advisory Board for the BART extension to San Jose. Active involvement is necessary, he says, so he can better understand the issues and the challenges. "If you don't stay up on these things, you don't have the right background to push forward on the projects that serve the region best."
Blalock is proud of the fact that of the 125 roundtrip BART trains that enter and leave Fremont daily, trains are usually on time and riders are happy with the service. If there is one area BART could improve its cleanliness, which he attributes to cutbacks. "Over the last four-year period, we've had to cut back twice," he said. "We don't have enough people to clean after each route." So newspapers that get left behind may hang around on trains longer than he'd like. "We think it impacts riders."
Finding solutions to improve public transportation
Finding solutions to improve public transportation can be tricky. More is not always better. Currently, BART trains have a maximum of 10 cars since platforms can only accommodate that many per train. To make more room on crowded trains, one thought is to have riders re-route to less crowded trains by getting off at a station and waiting for another train with fewer riders. Blalock stresses that solutions like re-routing riders would have to make sense for the riders, otherwise the solutions won't get any participation.
Ideas to improve public transportation are not always easy to come by and that's why Blalock feels it is essential that all transportation agencies listen to their riders. It is also important to provide amenities near stations such as stores, bike parking and support to help riders get where they need to go. That is the only way such solutions will work. A BART rider himself, Blalock says he regularly takes public transportation including BART because it's "too easy."
Blalock has lived in Fremont since 1960 and has been a Bay Area resident for 73 years. He graduated from San Jose State University. He said a high school teacher was responsible for steering him in the direction of architecture that subsequently led him to civil engineering. As a child in Silicon Valley, he says he earned spare money by picking apricots, cherries, walnuts and prunes. He claims he's a pretty good "prune picker."
Blalock and his wife have five children, three grandsons and five granddaughters. In his spare time he enjoys traveling, gardening, skiing, camping, fishing and boating and winemaking, "mostly reds" he says. This year he's working on Cabernet Sauvignon. "Next summer we'll taste it."