Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

BART – A Love, Hate Relationship

Posted by Roobs on July 12, 2010

I started writing this post a couple weeks ago to talk about BART’s recent Livermore Extension plan.  But instead, it has turned into a post about my relationship with BART; a love-hate relationship.  And as I stop and think about it, I feel no type could describe the relationship between BART and rider better.

Like a lot of transit advocates in the Bay Area, I have an intrinsic issue with BART extension.  When BART comes out and says “we want to extend the system”, my immediate reaction is to raise a Spock-like eyebrow.  These issues are in large part because BART is spending billions of dollars on expanding to areas that have yet to really warrant the exaggerated ridership projections that usually accompany a BART extension proposal.

The problem is that rail lines often merely match the convenience of a car and frequently come at greater than anticipated expense with lower than expected ridership. Given these considerations and a fiscal climate which has forced us to rethink our transit priorities, BART’s enthusiasm for suburban system extensions is misplaced and has the potential to rob the core system of valuable resources.  I believe there is a point when specific modes of rail transit become inefficient compared to other and we should be mindful of the context in which we are trying to connect different parts of a region.

Take Los Angeles.  I believe LA’s Gold Line extension in the San Gabriel Valley (referred to as the Foothill Extension) out towards the San Bernardino County line is pushing the proverbial envelope.  When finished, you will be able to take a light-rail train from La Verne (Phase 2) to Downtown LA in about 1 hour (personal calculation based on existing speeds and distances), which is a little shorter than around the 1.5 hours of time it will take you by car, even with traffic on the I-210 freeway.  Is that enough to encourage residents of the cities out past Pasadena to ditch their car and take transit?  It hasn’t really work for BART in the past.

BART’s Problems with Extensions

BART’s extensions to Pittsburgh out in the far corner of Contra Costa County and it’s extension into Milbrae in San Mateo County have been monuments to planning failure.  In principle, an extension of BART to the regions largest airport, SFO, makes sense.  And the concept of, “let’s build a train out into the suburbs to get people out of their car” when thinking of the Pittsburgh extension sounds good too, right?  Sure.  In principle everything sounds great.  The big problem with BART has been their lofty goals and exaggerated ridership projections never pan out to their hefty price tags.

In 1996, BART released its EIR for the SFO/Milbrae Extension.  This extension of the BART system would be from South San Francisco to Milbrae and included four new stations: South San Francisco, San Bruno, SFO, and Milbrae

BART’s  EIR projected ridership levels at the SFO Station to reach 17,800 riders daily by 2010.  In 2006, however, ridership at SFO stood well below anticipated levels at only 7,116, showing only a modest increase of 21% over three years from its initial ridership of 5,865.  We can, perhaps, give BART a little slack for the fact that i’m sure projections from 1996-2004 were pretty decent thanks to the dot com boom.  But even with high expectations, 21% increase is pretty dismal.

As can be seen on the graph below, in 2008 ridership at the SFO station reached only 9, 718, still below their projected numbers.  However, in May of 2008, BART was quick to highlight they had increased ridership to 10,700 daily at the SFO station.  Nevertheless, it is unlikely that ridership at SFO will reach the projected 2010 numbers by the end of the year.

Station Projected (2010) Measured (2003)1 Measured (2008)1
South San Francisco 8,000 2,396 5,674
San Bruno 9,800 2,234 4,902
S.F. Int’l Airport 17,800 6,798 9,718*
Millbrae 33,000 4,612 8,248
TOTAL 68,600 16,040 28,542

1 Assumes an equal number of entries and exits at each station.

* Measured prior to BART press release of 10,700 riders.


If we view the SFO/Milbrae extension as a whole based on 2008 measured numbers, this means that BART achieved only 42% of its projected ridership at a cost of $1.5 billion.  Makes you wonder why BART thinks the Oakland Airport Connector would be such a great idea too since Oakland International Airport has much less passenger traffic.

This low ridership is largely responsible for the constantly changing service on this extension route.  For example, in 2007, BART discontinued direct service to SFO from Milbrae, which saw only a daily ridership of 350 at the time for that station (BART projected ridership at Milbrae to reach 33,000 for all trips by 2010).

This is the kind of example that makes us all grumble at the thought of more BART extensions.  A lot of money for extensions that don’t warrant the ridership and don’t necessarily improve the efficiency and safety of the overall system.  It’s a lot of money that the average BART rider sees leaving their wallets in the form of increased ticket fares.  They have to pay to keep up those extensions some how.  And with the state not willing to foot the bill more so than before, Oakland and San Francisco riders are the ones that will be footing the bill more than the riders of BART’s extensions.

So when BART comes out and says that they want to move the current Dubline/Pleasanton route to Livermore, i’m a little concerned.  Though, as you will read, I have lightly opposing views on this extension, the extension will cost almost $4 billion dollars and probably won’t generate the ridership necessary to warrant that price tag.  As things stand now, BART stations in Livermore will likely be used as frequently as the Contra Costa county stations (which isn’t much compared to projections).

Will a BART extension to Livermore benefit some people?  Sure!  But as the city has developed so far, it doesn’t suggest they are quick to build higher density, transit oriented development.  Now if they do that and show that they want to, such as zoning areas around proposed BART stations now rather than later, then it could work.

Love and Hate

As i usually say in my blogs… Dont get me wrong!  Despite my extensive criticism of BART and their love of suburban expansion, I still love it and use it often.  BART is a great way for me to visit San Francisco without taking a car.  Do I wish it was better?  Absolutely!  I wish BART would put more money into fixing its existing infrastructure.  I wish BART would lower their fairs.  I wish BART ran until at least 2am to satisfy my weekend bar-crawls.  But it doesn’t.  And until I can get really drunk in San Francisco and take a belligerent BART ride back to Berkeley, I am still not satisfied.  

Also, BART has said they want to purchase new train cars (right).  But it will probably be some time before we actually see them.  Maybe because they spend all that time dreaming up extensions?  Perhaps.  But at least they try.

All my criticism aside, this doesn’t mean I don’t support BART extensions out right.  As I suggested, there are some extension of the heavy rail network that, in principle, make sense and one’s I believe have some intrinsic value.

On that note, I support these two BART extensions on principle, though, BART can always do something that will make me pull that support, like make it cost more than it has to:

  • San Jose/Diridon Station Extension

I think its appropriate that BART reach the regions largest city.  With the proposed high-speed rail station at Diridon Station, this would allow all major local and regional transportation systems to successfully link together: BART, future High-Speed-Rail (HSR), ACE, VTA and Cal Train.  And with Cal Train and HSR serving the peninsula cities into San Francisco, it seems appropriate that the East Bay have a transit system to get them to major urban centers and transit hubs.  With all the development potential around a regional transit hub at Diridon Station, the ridership potential for BART and other transit is very good and one that I am willing to bet a little on.

  • Livermore Extension

I know I used the Livermore Extension as an example of BART’s love of suburbia, and I stand by that.  The post at TransportPolitic focuses on the usual suspects with BART extensions: Ridership projections and a heft price tag.

The project will bring urban rapid transit — a technology reserved typically for the densest downtown and apartment communities — to a (relatively small) city of 200,000 people. While most similar systems have stops every half to three quarters mile, this Livermore extension will have two new stations for 11 miles of new service. With average speeds along the route approaching 60 mph, and an estimated future daily ridership of 32,000, the line will in all appearances be a well-frequented intercity rail system. The problem, of course, is its estimated $3.8 billion price tag.

Though I am perhaps less supportive of this extension than the San Jose one, I think the Livermore extension has potential for similar reasons of San Jose if the local region around Livermore takes correct steps.

Like with San Jose, this extension would allow for the linkage of transit systems.  At Livermore, BART will link with ACE.  If ACE can be improved, as is proposed in conjunction with the development of high-speed rail, it will allow those in the Central Valley, such as in the city of Stockton, to take ACE to Livermore and either continue on to San Jose or transfer to BART to go to Oakland or San Francisco.  Currently, the only way a commuter from Stockton or the Central Valley can “go green” and take public transit is to take ACE to Livermore and transfer to a bus to take them to the Dublin BART station.  Or they can just drive to Dublin BART and park in their massive and aesthetically deficient parking structure.

However, this will only work if the cities of Livermore, Dublin and Pleasanton are willing to commit to zoning for and encouraging transit oriented development.  If they attempt to maintain a “suburb” feel to their cities, not only do they not warrant an extension but drag the entire system down if they do.

Also, if political forces push the California High-Speed Rail Authority to move HSR away from its current preferred route through the Pacheco Pass south of San Jose, the other alignment would be through the Altamont Pass, which would put a HSR station smack dab in Livermore.

Additionally, I believe it is important to remember how the development community will look at these transit improvements.  Developers usually do not build the very TOD communities that advocates call for on the promise that a city or agency will eventually build a transit system or station in that particular site.  Many developers wait until the station is already in place and then develop around it.  This is because transit-oriented communities enjoy up to 15% increase in their property values when built.  But the volatility of mass transit funding now means that developers won’t take an agency’s word on it.

However, this is where it ends.  There should be no extension of BART past Livermore.  The distance from the central Bay Area to Stockton is so far that any BART service is no longer efficient and justifiable.  I also would argue against any extension of BART south of Milbrae.  BART should never have gone to Milbrae to begin with.  SFO, understandable.  Milbrae, nope.

Can BART be Better?

The answer is a resounding yes! I would much prefer to see BART take this money and put it into fixing the current system.  Obviously, we cannot expect BART to abandon their failed extensions.  They are there and while I criticize their failed cost-benefit ratio, I believe that we can take these lemons and try to turn it into a decent system.

Much of this is actually outside of BART’s direct control, such as cities and developers coming in and building legit transit-oriented development (vs. transit-adjacent development) near existing BART stations.  But BART can use their copious amount of extension dollars (that seem to appear out of no where) and do things like: improve the electric infrastructure of the third-rails, replace the already aged fleet of train cars, fix up the ominous and ear-popping transbay tube and, lets face it, make the stations look a little nicer.

I also think that BART should take a page from, ironically, LA Metro and engage in a brilliant marketing campaign in an effort to woo skeptical transit riders onto their trains. This doesn’t just include an elegant advertising plan but also a willingness to redesign how BART looks and feels. Check out the video below or click the link.  (The video below is choppy. Click the link above for better playback).

But as I said.  I do love and use BART often.  The main issue is the frustration at the fact that BART, at its core, is not a bad system.  It has all the earmarks of a great transit system that can be to the benefit of many people.  But with poor planning and management, I feel that we are taking a diamond and tossing it back in the rough.


One Response to “BART – A Love, Hate Relationship”

  1. […] Check out my other post: BART – A Love, Hate Relationship. […]

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