BART to discuss the future of Northern California ‘megaregion’ rail system

Throughout Link21 development process, agency’s board will provide guidance, approve funding

For the first time since early-stage plans for a megaregional rail system were made public earlier this year, the BART Board of Directors will get an update this Thursday on where things stand.

A joint venture between BART and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Link21 aims to connect 21 Northern California counties with an integrated rail network that builds upon existing routes and includes a second transbay tunnel between Oakland and San Francisco.

Supporters say the 20-year, multi-billion-dollar series of projects would make rail service fast, frequent and reliable; develop a pipeline between affordable housing and jobs; and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by delivering a compelling alternative to commuting by private car.

“As we continue to offer vital services to our passengers during these challenging times, we are also looking ahead to the future,” BART General Manager Bob Powers said in a statement.

Link21 publicly launched in late January with a splashy website and a report from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute extolling the benefits of a new transbay crossing to the entire region.

And for a fairly wonky proposal still two-decades away from welcoming passengers, it received an enthusiastic reception from the train-loving Bay Area public.

As of Feb. 25, the site had received 11,000 total visits and roughly 300 mentions on social media.

“We received an overwhelmingly positive response,” BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said. “We’ve taken part in several education webinars that were very well attended, and we have received a high response to our website surveys.”

Thursday’s agenda item is merely informational, which means directors won’t be asked to vote on any proposed action, but the dialogue could be a good indicator of whether the board has bought into the promise of a super-connected megaregion.

Heading into the meeting, signs point to yes.

BART’s board has already approved a $50 million contract with an infrastructure firm as well as committed $110 million of voter-approved Measure RR funds toward planning the project in 2016.

As the process moves through and beyond its current project development phase, the BART board will be charged with providing guidance and direction as well as approving funding and recommendations at key milestones, according to Trost.

Part of that work will include identifying additional funding sources, using a combination of federal, state and local dollars as well as possible public-private partnerships, she added.

Though its name and fancy website is new, Link21 stems from a very old and simple idea: it should be easier to travel throughout the Bay Area using passenger rail.

San Francisco train riders can travel roughly 35 miles in one hour. By comparison, riders in New York City can travel 80 miles, Chicago, 55 miles and Washington D.C. 85 miles, over the same time period.

Estimates from before the pandemic suggested that by 2040 there would be nearly 28 million daily motorized trips within the Bay Area, and 800,000 between the region and its surroundings such as the Sacramento, Monterey Bay and Northern San Joaquin areas.

That would make an already cumbersome, patchwork rail network even more difficult to navigate.

These projections are based on pre-pandemic realities, but Trost said there’s public support and momentum to forge ahead with early stages of planning and development right now.

According to a June 2020 survey of residents across the Northern California megaregion, 79 percent said that plans to fix the area’s long-term challenges pertaining to traffic and transportation need to be developed alongside more immediate responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocates for the projects also say it’s critical to equip the Bay Area with the infrastructure it needs to support economic recovery and, eventually, growth in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff estimates it will take roughly 20 years to see this project to fruition, assuming it makes it that far, with a projected launch date of 2040.

Officials will spend the next three months conducting public outreach through stakeholder meetings, equity workshops and other survey formats; presenting at national conferences for feedback; completing market analysis and travel demand ridership projections; developing joint funding advocacy efforts; and hiring new consultants.

The BART Board of Directors can next expect to vote on a contract for the project at a meeting in May.

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