BART board unanimously approves ambassador program and wireless upgrades

BART’s board of directors on Thursday unanimously approved a pilot program to hire specially trained ambassadors to ride trains and keep an eye on things during the evening commute. 

The intent is to help riders feel safer following several high-profile crimes on BART including the fatal stabbing of a passenger last November. 

The trial program is scheduled to begin on Feb. 10 and if all goes well, it could become permanent. 

The 10 unarmed employees will work in two-person teams walking around the trains and platforms from 2 p.m. until midnight with extra coverage on Saturday. 

The ambassadors will be trained in crisis intervention and equipped with radio connected to BART Police dispatch to report safety and security concerns or biohazards. 

'We're going to train them. We are going to get them out there so they can be our extra eyes and ears so officers can respond and stop people from committing crimes," said BART Police Officers' Association (BPOA) President Keith Garcia. 

BPOA supports the $690,000 program but says that alone will not make the system safer. 

"We need more officers out there. That will increase the actual safety," said Garcia. 

The BART board also unanimously approved plan that would improve WiFi coverage and cellphone connectivity as a gradual process over five years. It includes new Bluetooth infrastructure and cellphone coverage enhancements that would reduce the amount of dropped phone calls, officials said. 

The plan would enhance cellphone app functions as well as streaming video and audio capabilities. BART General Manager Bob Powers said the plan would not only enhance the customer experience, but would create revenue for the transit agency by expanding underground cellular and fiber optic infrastructure. 

The plan calls for BART and the San Francisco Municipal Railway to partner with Mobilitie, the country's largest private wireless infrastructure company, to add underground cell coverage to three Muni tunnels -- Sunset, Twin Peaks and the Central Subway -- within three years.

The next phase will require Mobilitie, which is based in Newport Beach, Calif., to build new wireless systems in all BART stations within four years.

The third phase of the proposal will extend wireless services from the stations to BART's new "Fleet of the Future" train cars.

Bay City News' Jeff Shuttleworth contributed to this story.