BART is approaching its SFO goal

At its fifth anniversary, the BART extension through the Peninsula to San Francisco International Airport rates kind words for a healthy gain in ridership. Average weekday passengers to SFO topped 10,000 for the first time since the airport station opened in June 2003 — a 65 percent increase from the station’s first full month of operation.

Ridership along the entire five-station Peninsula line through Colma, South San Francisco, San Bruno and Millbrae also reached record levels — up 51 percent with an average 37,200 weekday passengers.

Of course, historically high gasoline prices have helped push BART ridership to unprecedented numbers throughout the regional railway. From June 23 to June 29 BART carried 2,317,800 passengers, its highest-ever weekly total.

But there is something especially satisfying about the latecomer SFO extension finally starting to reach its promised popularity, after an often controversial and long-disappointing impact. The Colma station opened the way to the Peninsula in February 1996 and for eight years the tunneling to the airport enraged neighbors. Meanwhile, intense political struggles to assemble sufficient funding to finish the job were ongoing and the contractors routinely went over budget.

Transportation leaders promoting the BART/SFO dream projected an average 50,000 weekday riders. But when the complete line finally opened for business in 2003, the national and Bay Area economy were reeling from a double blow of the dot-com bust and post-Sept. 11 travel paranoia. The airport was in doldrums and BART extension ridership was a big disappointment.

But these days, BART has plenty going for it. Aside from runaway gas prices, our regional highway congestion also encourages commuters to switch to public transit. Throughout the years, BART established 95 percent on-time passenger service and an enviable safety record. Low-cost airlines now serving SFO — JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America — did good business as air travel rebounded.

BART and SamTrans settled their long-running dispute about cost obligations and got divorced, so BART was finally able to increase off-hour services by one-third, attracting more passengers. The SFO extension also began offering cheap, convenient long-term airport parking in the Millbrae station garage for $6 perday.

BART officials are particularly proud of their marketing outreach to SFO’s growing percentage of European visitors, who are drawn to the bargains newly available for their euro currency against the weak U.S. dollar. BART became the only American transit agency selling Europeans BART passes online when they book travel plans via Travelocity.com, Expedia.com or Orbitz.com.

Naturally, it also had to help that after five years in operation, many more passengers have heard about the SFO service. But whatever the causes, we are just pleased that the BART airport extension has finally hit its stride and is closing in on that long-sought 50,000 weekday ridership.

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