Violent crime soars on BART, fare evasion costs $25M a year: grand jury report

With the stabbing death of 18-year-old Nia Wilson last summer at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland, the public’s attention – and now, the Alameda County Grand Jury - is laser focused on the beleaguered agency.

The grand jury’s 2018-2019  findings, out this week, shows that Wilson's homicide and the other two men killed that same week in 2018 – while the most violent and high-profile – fall into a larger pattern of violence.

In fact, the grand jury found that violent crime on BART, including robberies and aggravated assaults, increased by 115 percent over the last five years. At the same time, the grand jury found that BART lost 8 percent of its ridership since its 2016 peak, even as the Bay Area population grew and several new stations were added to the system.

WATCH: Drug use at BART Civic Station in San Francisco

Fewer passengers means less revenue for BART, which is counting on about 6 percent of its operating expenses to be covered by fares in FY 2020, compared to 74 percent five years ago. Between lower fare revenue and expected increases in operating expenses, BART anticipates facing an operating budget deficit this year and over the next few years.

BART board president Debora Allen said she hopes her colleagues will deal with these challenges.

"That's why I ran for office," Allen said. "The board has to put these quality-of-life issues first. We don't need to spend money developing real estate or working on art projects. It doesn't have to be like this. It's clearly not getting any better, it's getting worse. We're at a point now, where it's almost like the Wild Wild West on BART."

The grand jury identified four reasons that seem to discourage ridership: Homeless riders who camp out on platforms and trains, dirty trains, and people who evade fares (15 percent of riders, or 17.7 million annually, don’t pay fares totaling about $25 million a year).

Allen said that she found nothing new in the juror's findings, other than the high number of fare evasions. She said she doesn't believe they are as high as the  jurors found, but even if fare evasion hovered at 6 percent, or 10 percent, she said, the loss would be anywhere from $30 million to $60 million.

The fourth finding dealt with crime, and riders' perceptions of how safe the trains really are. And the data shows that in fact, the fears that many have is indeed the reality.

In 2018, there were three homicides, a 128 percent increase in robberies from the prior year and an 83 percent increase in aggravated assault. In all, violent crimes increased 115 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to BART crime data.

Kartika Widijah of Lafayette is well aware of these trends. She won't take BART anymore and instead, drives to work.

"BART, sometimes it's not safe anymore," she said, shaking her head. "After 8 o'clock? No, no, no." 

Anne Chambers of Moraga agreed. "People are shooting up in stations," she said, referring to rampant drug use at BART. "It doesn't feel like there's any police presence in the stations." 

But Jessica O'Dea of Martinez stood by BART, which she called an "essential option."

"It's not always perfect," she acknowledged. "But I appreciate having it." 

Jurors noted that a bright spot this year was the introduction of 775 clean new cars to replace the existing ones that have been in use since 1972. And while violent crime went up, property crimes went down by 5 percent in general; auto theft went down by 32 percent.

And jurors also  noted that BART hasn't sat idly by. The agency has worked hard to try to quell its safety and homelessness problems by launching social service referral programs, adding more patrol officers and introducing a phone app, BART Watch, so that riders can report and document crime in real time, as a few examples. 

But the jurors said they felt that BART needs to do more.

Specifically, the jurors said the agency needs to: Speed up hiring more patrol officers, crack down harder on fare evaders and improve its process for handling the collection of fines, expand initiatives to respond more quickly to bio-hazard complaints in the trains, continue partnering with social service agencies to serve the homeless and advocate for more regional solutions and be more transparent of BART policies and decisions. 

To conduct its findings, the grand jury examined BART public documents, including consultant reports, attended or viewed BART board meetings and agendas, toured the BART operations center in Oakland and interviewed BART senior executives. But the grand jury said it was difficult finding many relevant documents. Many board-related documents are saved as images, the jurors found, so the public cannot search for terms within written reports such as agendas, attachments, presentations, and minutes.

Finally, the jurors said BART’s board needs to work faster to react to problems. 

“To win riders back,” the jurors wrote, “the board must convince the public that BART is once again clean and safe to ride and that a rigorous effort to stop crime, including fare evasion, is in progress. Furthermore, BART must do this while facing serious competition from industry disrupters like Uber and Lyft.” 

Allen agrees: "We have been too slow." 

KTVU's Allie Rasmus contributed to this report.