The high price of BART's expansion

Four planned BART expansion projects could provide passage for hundreds of thousands of new Bay Area riders, but they could come at the expense of necessary maintenance and throw the agency into fiscal peril.

Last month, federal approval was granted for the first section of BART’s proposed extension to Silicon Valley, a major milestone in the transit agency’s plan to provide passage for 90,000 new South Bay riders.

The Silicon Valley plan, which would include 16 new miles of BART trackway and six stations, is one of four major extension projects currently being reviewed by the transit agency, with other projects expanding service to East Bay cities including Antioch and Livermore.

When the projects are completed, the vision of BART as a true regional transit provider will be ever nearer to reality, but the bevy of ambitious undertakings will also put further strain on the agency, which is currently facing a $7.5 billion maintenance shortfall on its core system.

An expanded BART will alleviate congestion on Bay Area highways and provide clean transportation options for commuters, but the added passengers will also mean heavy investment from the agency for additional cars, maintenance equipment, access points, staffing and other costly endeavors.

“We have a $7 billion shortfall when it comes to getting our current equipment up to a state of good repair,” said BART Director Tom Radulovich, who represents San Francisco on the agency’s board. “Expanding the system is taking discretionary money that could be used directly for maintenance services. By ignoring our maintenance, we create a system that is less safe, and less reliable.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s lead planning group, has identified $15 billion that BART needs to invest in the next 25 years to maintain its core system, which covers 104 miles. However, the agency has only secured $7.5 billion for those projects.

“It’s important that the top BART priority should be sustaining its existing core system,” said Carli Paine, transportation program director for TransForm, a Bay Area transit advocacy group. “It’s really not good public policy and not good business to undercut the core ridership. Expansion projects could cannibalize the core system.”

While BART oficials have emphasized that line expansions will ease reliance on automobiles in the Bay Area and provide additional commuters an environmentally friendly way to travel, some question whether politics play a larger role in the expansion plans.

BART is one of just three transit agencies in the country to have a publicly elected board of directors, with each member representing a district and a voter constituency. State-of-the-art, flashy expansion projects typically garner the support of voters.

“‘Let’s keep everything the same’ is not usually the vote that wins,” said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the MTC. “Voters like big projects.”

Rentschler also pointed out that many residents in areas such as Antioch and Livermore say they are due BART service since they live in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The two regions are part of the original BART district, a pact of Bay Area counties that direct a percentage of sales tax revenue to help support the system. Also, counties have set up unique transportation and infrastructure priorities, many of which include BART expansions.

Joel Keller, a BART board member who represents eastern Contra Costa County, the site of the agency’s $462 million extension from Pittsburg to Antioch, said residents in his region have been paying taxes to support the system for 40 years, and thus deserve the expanded service.

“The core system does need to be modernized, but there is also a legitimate need to expand service,” said Keller. “It’s our duty as BART directors to look under every rock possible to find funding opportunities for this agency.”

The majority of the construction costs of the expansion projects will be footed by other sources — the Silicon Valley extension, for example, will be built and maintained by Santa Clara’s Valley Transportation Authority — and BART has projected that increased passengers, increased sales tax numbers and other economic factors will cover the extra operating costs of the expansions. However, many groups are skeptical about that rosy scenario, mainly because they’ve heard these arguments before, with disappointing results.

The last major BART expansion came in 2003, when the agency extended service southward to San Francisco International Airport. Conceived at the height of the dot-com boom, the agency predicted huge ridership numbers and major revenue surpluses from the extension. However, not only has the project never met many of those surplus forecasts, it has actually been a consistent revenue drain for the agency.

In the 2003-04 fiscal year, the first of BART’s SFO extension, the agency spent nearly $44 million to operate the system, but only received $21 million in return, a loss of $23 million. While the extension has begun to operate near a break-even level, it has still yet to turn a profit for BART, and in more than seven years of its existence has cost the agency $73 million.

BART officials attribute the lower-than-expected performance of the SFO extension to two main factors. The first was the dot-com bust, an utter decimation of Silicon Valley business that robbed the agency of its projected commuting work force. The second was Caltrain’s Baby Bullet train, a new, fast-moving commuter line that gave South Bay residents a viable alternative to BART.

While hindsight is 20-20 concerning the SFO extension, many transit advocates are wondering if any more unforeseen snags lay in the wait for BART’s new expansion projects in the East and South Bay.

“[BART staff tells] us that these extensions will operate at a surplus, just like they said for the SFO extension,” said Radulovich. “I’m wondering if they think we’re stupid, or maybe they just hope we weren’t paying attention.”

BART spokesman Linton Johnson said there are a number of differences between the agency’s latest projects and the SFO extension, although he and other BART officials still say the expansion to the airport performs better than other aspects of the system, and will one day be a great success.

The main contrast in the new BART extensions is that they will be supported by transit-oriented development plans — minicommunities that surround the proposed stations.

“We’re now requiring that the cities that want stations build communities around transit, as opposed to just building transit down freeways and hoping people will come,” said Johnson. “That’s ensuring ridership. Plus, when you’re building communities around transit, you’re getting more tax revenue, you’re improving the economy, you’re putting to work, and you’re creating a self-sustainable system.”

Johnson also said BART’s ridership calculations for the four main extensions are conservative enough to ensure that the expansion projects won’t take away from the agency’s core system.

“There is a cost formula we learned from SFO,” said Johnson. “We have an agreement with these communities and agencies to make sure the extension is not a burden on our system.”

Johnson said the revenue surpluses from the BART extensions would be transferred to the agency’s capital program to help offset the $7.5 billion maintenance shortfall. The rest of the deficit could be made up via a variety of methods, including an increase in the local gas tax, voter initiatives such as a property tax bond measure and future bridge toll hikes.

The agency has thrown its weight behind the expansions and voters have consistently showed their support for the plans. Only time will tell if the projects pay off in the long run.

“These are not easy decisions to make,” said Rentschler. “If the plans are really successful, then they will be affordable. However, I just don’t think it would be honest to say that they won’t add to BART’s capital shortfall.”

By the numbers

$15B Projected funding needed over next 23 years to maintain current operations
$7.5B Funding secured by BART for maintenance
$7.5B Long-term capital funding shortfall
6 Percent decline in BART ridership since 2008 (334,894 average weekday riders in 2010)
9 Percent decline in BART sales tax revenue from 2008 to 2009

Source: MTC, BART

Silicon Valley extension:

•Ridership: 98,000
•Cost: $6 million
•Construction start date: 2012
•Miles: 16


Eastern Contra Costa County extension:

•Ridership: 10,100
•Cost: $462 million
•Construction start date: 2010
•Miles: 10


Livermore extension:

•Ridership: 31,900
•Cost: $3.83 billion
•Construction start date: not determined
•Miles: 11.3


Warm Springs extension:

•Ridership: 11,600
•Cost: $890 million
•Construction start date: 2011
•Miles: 5.4


Current BART system

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