BART to Livermore: A Costly Proposition
BART opened in 1972, completed its entire base system in 1976 and only began to expand nearly twenty years later in 1994. In 1994 the extensions to Pittsburg/Bay Point and Colma began to open. The former is an 8 mile extension from Concord, the center of Central Contra Costa County to outer Pittsburg, a sprawling suburb. To give you an idea of the surroundings of the stations on this extension, check out this picture:
That’s right: the station is in the middle of a freeway, surrounded by oceans of surface parking and low-density or no-density parcels, many of which aren’t even developed. This extension does serve 15,000 passengers a day, but it is exactly the kind of passengers a rapid transit system like BART is not designed to serve. These passengers mostly make the one-hour journey to San Francisco in the morning and return in the evening, driving to and from the station. BART is currently planning to extend its system further east into the sprawl of far Eastern Contra Costa County, but that’s a topic for a different post.
The point of mentioning the Pittsburg/Bay Point extension is to provide a considerable contrast for the recently announced locally preferred alternative (LPA) for the upcoming BART extension to Livermore, another outer suburb.
BART to Livermore’s LPA makes no cost compromises and has been designed with high ridership as the first priority. Trains will whisk by traffic on 580 at 70 miles per hour until the Portola Avenue exit in Livermore. From there, a cut and cover subway under Portola Avenue will take trains to an intermodal station with the Altamont Commuter Express system. Trains will emerge from the subway and share their terminal station, Vasco Road, with ACE.
Preliminary ridership estimates are in the 30,000-40,000 range, fairly impressive for an extension into essentially the exurbs. Cost, however, is projected at over three billion dollars, over three times as much as the Dublin/Pleasanton Extension which brought BART to the Amador Valley.
Cost aside, BART has avoided its past habit to turn stations into seas of parking with no development in sight by placing the two stations on this extension far (relatively) from the freeway and in currently urbanized areas. Other alternatives for this extension called for a station at Greenville Road, miles from Livermore’s current urban growth boundary.
Now about the cost:
In the grand scheme of government spending, or the GDP of the United States or California, 3 billion dollars is chump change. When it comes to transportation funding, however, three billion is huge. BART has yet to commit any funding at all for this extension, except a small trickle for engineering studies. The Federal Transit Administration, despite its recent pattern of funding huge projects (East Side Access, ARC Tunnel, Transbay Transit Center), is unlikely to provide much funding for a project of questionable short term cost effectiveness.
I say short term cost effectiveness because this project’s capital cost per rider is very high, and these ridership estimates are questionably high (50,000+ riders in an area with only 120,000 residents??) Of more significance is the basis of this project, just like every BART project since the Embarcadero Infill Station was built in 1976: extend BART out further, and further into the suburbs and exurbs.
The bottom line is that the 3 billion for BART to Livermore would be a brilliant down payment for a second Transbay Tube, or a heavy rail line under Geary Boulevard, or even infill stations on current lines in key locations like Solano Avenue (Albany), 58th Street, San Antonio, Melrose and Temescal (Oakland), 30th Street/Mission (San Francisco) and Oak Grove (Concord). These stations would increase ridership, allow for a dramatic increase in transit oriented development and make BART a more effective system for the areas it already serves. 3 billion dollars could likely construct all of these stations with funds to spare for BART’s sorely needed fleet replacement program.
In the end, yes, BART to Livermore is a better thought-out project than previous suburban extensions, namely Pittsburg/Bay Point. But, 3 billion dollars in the scarce climate of transportation capital funding should be put to better use. To reiterate, the priorities and organization of BART forces a suburban focus upon the system, at a negative benefit to most riders. Disbanding BART, MTC, and many of the other agencies that have botched Bay Area transit priorites for the last twenty years and building up a new, consolidated agency, like bamta (see this post) could put the Bay Area on the right track. Just look at New York’s MTA. They may not be a pristine example of a well run transit agency, but they ensure that funding is fairly distributed between the urban and suburban areas they serve. If only the Bay Area realized that a focus on our vibrant urban areas could improve life for all, and money down the toilet for exurban extensions of BART is just that: money wasted.