BART’s No-Nonsense GM Grace Crunican

She handles strikes, deaths on the tracks, and nine bosses to run the aging train system as best she can. Has BART entered a new era?


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Crunican is chatting up unions.

Chris Duffey

 

This story from our October issue will be available online Nov. 1. Copies of our print issue are available by calling 510-238-9101.

Grace Crunican was running through her standard list of questions: What do you think of BART? Are the trains on time? Are they clean? How about the stations? Do you feel safe? She was standing on the platform of the Rockridge BART station. It was the morning rush hour. Crunican, BART’s general manager, was addressing her questions to a man in a tan windbreaker. One of her trusted aides, Luna Salaver, a BART manager, was jotting notes on a clipboard.

The man was a big fan of BART. In fact, he seemed to like everything about it. He even described the fares—he pays $7.80 for his roundtrip to the 16th Mission Station—as “pretty good,” which was not an opinion universally shared that morning on the platform.

Finally, Crunican asked, “Is there anything else you would like to say about BART?”

That’s when he threw her a curveball.

“Yes,” he said. “I like the music on the trains.”

Crunican wrinkled her nose.

“You mean the people who play music on the trains and ask for donations?”

“Yes,” the man said.

BART has been trying for years to get rid of the musicians. Riders often complain about them. In fact, just a few minutes earlier, another rider—an older woman on her way to San Francisco International Airport—had complained about them to Crunican.

But this man was of another ilk. 

“Sometimes the music is nice,” he told Crunican. “Like yesterday … I had a hard day at work and I was tired, and this man came on the train with a cello and started playing. It made me feel better.”

Crunican could only shrug her shoulders. As she knows all too well after nearly 40 years in public administration, you can’t please everyone. In fact, it’s much easier to make everyone mad.

She found this out the hard way at her last job. She was Seattle’s director of transportation. There was a freak snowstorm—in fact, three in one week. It was dubbed “Snowpocalypse.”

It was her department’s job to clear the snow. The decision was made to use sand, instead of salt, to limit environmental damage to the bay.

But the sand didn’t work. The snow remained. And the city—at least part of it—slid to a halt.

Snowpocalypse!

Crunican was one of the casualties. Accused of mishandling the crisis, she was also tarred for promoting an abusive supervisor and bungling several curb and crosswalk projects.

A year after the storm, in 2009, she was essentially let go. The new mayor—the old mayor also got the boot—made it clear that he was not going to retain her. And she resigned.

 

But Crunican, then in her mid-50s, was not ready to retire. She had vast experience in public transportation. She had come to Washington, D.C., as an intern in the late-1970s. She had worked for the U.S. Department of Transportation; a Senate transportation committee; the Federal Transit Administration; and, before Seattle, she had directed Oregon’s transportation department.

When Dorothy Dugger was forced out as BART’s general manager in 2011, Crunican applied. And BART directors invited her for an interview. “She told us off,” former director Lynette Sweet told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“She told us what we weren’t doing as a board, why we needed to do things differently, and went through a whole litany of reasons.”

The BART board hired her at a salary of $300,000 a year. (It is now $335,341.) Only one BART director, James Fang, voted against her, saying he was unsure whether she knew enough about the BART system.

Crunican rented an apartment in Alameda and moved in with her two kids. “I wanted to rent because Dorothy had just been fired, so I wasn’t sure it was smart to buy a house.”

She’s still renting. “Which has nothing to do with anything,” she said, during an interview in her office high above Lake Merritt in the Kaiser Center. “I’ve just been too busy. I haven’t had any time to go out looking for homes.”

Crunican was in Washington, D.C., when she decided she wanted kids. “I wanted to get married, too,” she said. “I just didn’t find the guy.”

She found she could adopt one child from China or multiple children from Russia. “I wanted two, so I signed up for Russian adoption, and nine months to the day that I went in to talk to them, I had my two kids. It was a little less physical”—than natural childbirth, she said. “But anyway, they’re doing great.”

She adopted a 4-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy. Earlier this year, the girl graduated from college, the boy from high school. She opted to keep other family details private.

“I’m pretty sick of people knowing where I live,” she said. Last year during the BART strikes, union members picketed outside of her apartment after someone posted her address online.

The strikes were almost Snowpocalyptic events for Crunican. Commuters fumed about eight days of gridlock. And union members complained about four years without raises.

There were a few calls for Crunican’s head. And voter anger may still cost some of the BART directors their positions. But most of the rage appeared to be directed at the unions with assorted politicians proposing bans on BART strikes.

 

These days, aside from headlines about homeless people using BART stations as bathrooms and broken station elevators, BART appears to be moving into a more tranquil era, although that calm could be broken any day by any number of things, such as another police shooting, a train off the tracks, or simply the inevitable breakdowns you get with 40-year-old equipment.

To try to head off future labor strife, Crunican has been meeting monthly with union leaders. 

Most union reps contacted for this story declined to talk about the meetings. But one, Sal Cruz, vice president of Local 3993 of AFSCME, said they were helping.

“In all honesty, she has been responsive to us,” said Cruz, who works in the BART Control Center in Oakland. “We bring up issues and she gets her staff to respond to them, which is obviously different than what was happening before.”

Most of Crunican’s bosses, the nine directors of the BART board, seem pleased with her, although not without reservations.

One thing directors like about Crunican is her ability to win grants for BART from outside agencies. Proof of this is found in BART’s plans to replace its entire fleet of aging cars at an expected cost of $3.3 billion.

BART doesn’t have that kind of money lying around. So Crunican had to go looking. She went to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and did very well. In fact, BART is “hopeful” that the MTC will pay 75 percent of the bill, said spokeswoman Alicia Trost. (Expect to see the first new cars in 2017. They’ll be easy to spot. Instead of two doors on each side, they’ll have three.)

BART is governed by a nine-member board of directors—so you can’t always tell who deserves the credit or blame for what goes on. But there have been a lot of changes since Crunican arrived in August 2011.

One visible change is the ongoing replacement of seat covers on trains. The old seat covers were cloth and often stained. The new ones are vinyl and easy to clean.

BART has also become more bike-friendly. Until last year, bikes were not allowed on trains during commute hours. Now they are always welcome, although not on lead cars. BART has also installed more bike racks, lockers, and stations to help thwart thieves. BART continues extending its reach. The Oakland Airport Connector is nearly ready to open, and work continues on the eBART extension to Antioch.

 

One thing that should have—in retrospect—gotten changed sooner were the safety rules for track inspectors. For years, before Crunican was hired, state and federal inspectors were prodding BART to tighten up safety rules. But BART resisted until a few days after two of its inspectors were killed by a train in Walnut Creek. That was last October during the second BART strike. The train that hit the men was being operated by a trainee.

BART President Joel Keller said everyone made mistakes during the BART strike. “[Crunican] started out very strong and accomplished a lot of things,” he said. “But then we went into the labor negotiations and we all stumbled, including Grace.”

Nonetheless, he said, “She deserves an opportunity to regain our trust.”

BART board member Zakhary Millett was less supportive. She said that though Crunican was “at least satisfactory,” there was “room for improvement.”

 Millet, at 25 the youngest BART director, said he felt stymied by Crunican in his effort to take a more “proactive role” in solving problems.

As an example, he cited the problem of homeless people using BART stations at bathrooms. BART is trying to fix the problem with a so-called poop crew of janitors and a crackdown on loitering in stations.

Despite the endless challenges that come with an operation with a $1.5 billion annual budget and 3,200 employees, Crunican said she doesn’t lie awake nights worrying. “I swim for exercise and when I’m in the pool, I think things through.”

“Issues have natural life cycles,” she said. “You think about them when they come up, you air them, you make a decision, and you move on. I don’t know if my job is tougher than anyone else’s. You have to have a thick skin. But my system service workers, they have to pick up excrement. They have a tough job. And my station agents have to deal with customers who get out of hand. Everybody’s got a tough job.”

After an hour on the chilly Rockridge platform, Crunican and Salaver retreated downstairs to talk to the station agent. 

Crunican identified herself and asked him if there was anything he needed. He said more video cameras, especially up on the platform. “I’ve had a couple of suicides.” 

“Any other problems?” Crunican asked.

“Fare evaders,” he said. “I do what I can, but … ”

“We don’t want you to get hurt,” Crunican said.

“I already have,” he said. “I’ve been punched twice. I was standing here and this guy went over the gate and I said, ‘You know better than that,’ and he punched me twice in the face and kicked me. Fortunately, they caught the guy at Union City.”

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