BART officials have been out in the community this month seeking feedback on a fare increase scheduled for July.
No, they're not asking if we want one. That's already been determined. They're asking how we would like our money extracted -- out of our left pocket or our right.
Three alternatives have been rolled out in public workshops and an online survey: a) raise all fares by 1.4 percent; b) add 10 cents to the cost of TransBay trips; or c) increase the cost of every ride by a nickel.
Any of the options works for BART because each is expected to generate about $5 million in added revenue a year, to be applied toward increased expenses and the long-term cost of buying new cars.
The consensus reaction, from what I can tell: Nobody really cares.
I attended a midday workshop in Antioch last week that attracted three participants (four, if you count me) spread out among 25 lonely chairs. Of the 12 people in the room, eight were BART employees.
Kerry Hamill, BART's government and community relations manager, acknowledged it was the least-attended of the six workshops held to that point. (The final workshop is 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hayward City Hall.)
"We had about 30 show up in Concord," she said, "and there were 25 or 30 in Richmond. That's been about the average."
That's better than three, of course, but not even 25 or 30 reflect a fevered interest when you consider that BART handles about 350,000 riders a day. Even the 900 or so responses to an online survey pale compared with the herds of commuters that flood stations every day.
Chalk up the indifference to the nominal size of the hike. A 1.4 percent bump? Five cents per trip? Even newspaper reporters can afford those rates.
"If we were seeking a real increase, like 20 percent, we would definitely hear from more people," Hamill said, not that she was advocating such a thing.
But I'm not here to disparage pursuit of public feedback. More companies and agencies should do the same. The idea behind forums is to let all economic circles have a voice in rate increases.
Even if this was the Department of Transportation's idea, more or less shoved down BART's throat, it's still a commendable notion. I can't recall the last time the water district or PG&E asked me how I felt about rate increases.
BART comes in for its share of criticism, from train delays to dirty cars to unintelligible in-transit announcements, but it does pay attention to customer feedback.
Last June, it invited customers to sample seat designs and covers at traveling "seat labs." Respondents' overwhelming preference for easily-cleaned vinyl over stain-absorbing cloth fabric will be reflected not only in the cars of tomorrow but in some cars of today. Hamill said seats in some test cars will be converted next month.
In June 2010, when BART directors discovered $2.3 million in surplus funds and considered temporary fare reductions, they instead reinvested in system improvements when customer polling reflected that as the preference.
This time, the public doesn't seem to care how fares are hiked. Not enough to attend meetings, anyway. People need to be motivated before they speak up.
Now, if oil companies ever invite customers for feedback on gas prices, they'll need to book a date at Candlestick Park.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.