Section of BART’s Transbay Tube are seen under construction in 1970. (Courtesy Bechtel Corp)

BART’s tunnel vision: Is it visionary enough?

BART is about to spend millions to decide whether and where to build a second Transbay Tube. Two of the tunnel’s main goals are to serve as a backup, in case the existing tube is damaged, and to handle loads that the half-century-old artery just can’t keep up with anymore.

BART has an opportunity to be visionary, not just adequate. Its new crossing can help solve not only BART’s problems, but also the problems of motorists, seven other rail routes, bicyclists and even two airports. And it can disperse traffic loads for the better, freeing up much of downtown San Francisco’s gridlock.

BART was about as visionary as it got a half century ago — “Imagine, Maude, a tube under the Bay where we can travel 80 miles an hour and end up in the Emporium Bargain Basement and Woolworth’s lunch counter without ever going outside! Golly! What won’t they think of next?”

Fast forward to 2018; it’s time to think of what comes next.

Another tube under the Bay carrying only two BART tracks now seems so last century and uncreative. While it would add capacity, it might not be a sure-fire backup in case the original tube is damaged, say, in a big earthquake. If the quake is big enough to damage one tube, it stands a good chance of damaging one only a few blocks away. And it would do nothing to solve other Bay Area transportation headaches.

So how could those problems be addressed?

How about a crossing strategically located halfway between the Bay and San Mateo bridges, touching down close to the two airports? If it were low-level — supported by pylons, like the San Mateo bridge — it would cost less than a tube and wouldn’t disturb the Bay or marine life. It would have two tracks for BART. It would have auto lanes with wide shoulders so breakdowns wouldn’t cause traffic jams. It could have a structure for bicycles. It would have two tracks for Caltrain, ACE Rail, Amtrak’s San Joaquins, Capitol Corridors, Coast Starlight, California Zephyr and California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Perhaps most visionary, it could have two guideways for an extension of SFO’s Airtrain that would link every terminal of both airports. So, when SFO was foggy, planes could land in Oakland. And when Oakland temporarily ran out of runway space or had fog issues itself, planes could land at SFO. At all times, passengers of both airports would have more convenience.

BART’s crossing would be sufficiently removed from downtown — and not underwater — so that the same disaster would be less likely to affect both it and the existing tube. Train passengers would finally be able to travel to San Francisco’s new Salesforce Transit Center from Sacramento, Stockton, Seattle, Chicago and everywhere else in the United States. Thousands of motorists would be siphoned from the Bay Bridge, making traffic in downtown San Francisco, the daily toll booth fiasco and the bridge itself considerably more tolerable. Motorists would never be more than a traffic-thinning 10 miles from a bridge. And the two airports could function more as a single property, with each one’s advantages now available to passengers of the other.

Financially, BART would stand to gain. The cost of such a crossing would be borne not only by BART, but also by CalTrans, Amtrak, High Speed Rail, Caltrain, ACE Rail and perhaps the two airports.

In addition to studying Transbay Tube II, BART should also look at Visionary Solution I.

Stanford M. Horn writes on transportation and development issues.

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