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Infrastructure Solutions for the Eastshore Freeway Corridor

This is the first post in a two post series about maximizing mobility along the Eastshore Freeway Corridor in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area. In this first post, I will concentrate on the infrastructure improvements that could alleviate congestion and lack of mobility in the area. In the second post I will focus on service improvements that will help achieve these goals. 

The Eastshore Freeway Corridor in the Eastern San Francisco Bay Area is plagued by chronic congestion. Unlike most freeways, the I-80/580 Eastshore Freeway is congested for elongated periods – generally 11am to 8pm on weekdays and 9am to 8pm on weekends. Southbound is generally more congested than northbound, although northbound during the PM peak is the most severe congestion on the roadway. At 10 lanes wide, the Eastshore Freeway cannot feasibly be widened and the current approach to managing transportation in the corridor is not effective as evidenced by 9+ hours of congestion every day. The current drive to improve freeway congestion in the corridor is well-intentioned and will substantially reduce congestion for a very low cost using ITS (intelligent transportation systems). While this approach to improving mobility has its merits, the sheer density and demand in this corridor requires a big-picture, large investment focus in addition to intermediate steps such as the the current Integrated Corridor Mobility Project.

Based on the environmental documents for the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project, almost 30% of traffic along I-80 West in the AM peak is traveling to and from Emeryville and Berkeley.  Most transit service currently serves the Downtown San Francisco and Downtown Oakland destinations along this corridor. Here I would like to present a radical re-imagining of mobility in the corridor to address this 30% (almost 80,000 AADT) of travelers whose origins and destinations lie within West Berkeley and Emeryville. This new look will address both local travelers and those entering the area from outside North Alameda County. First, local solutions.

Bounded by San Pablo Avenue and the Eastshore Freeway, this study area has existing, frequent, AC Transit bus transit service on San Pablo Avenue from north to south, and University Avenue fron east to west. In Emeryville, a municipally-operated shuttle, Emery-Go-Round, connects major employment destinations with MacArthur BART approximately 2 miles away. In addition, AC Transit operates routes 26 and 49, both of which pass through the area but run infrequently and do not directly serve high travel demand destinations. Amtrak operates the Capitol Corridor intercity train service that stops in West Berkeley and Emeryville, but peak frequency is one train per hour. Railroad right of way in the area is plentiful – existing condition is generally 3-4 tracks with between 10 and 30 lateral feet of additional right of way available.

To best provide local mobility along this corridor three solutions seem the most cost effective and realistic. First is constructing a true bus rapid transit line along San Pablo Avenue so AC Transit can provide more effective north-south service in the corridor. Current plans for a BRT corridor along International Boulevard in Oakland provide a great model for San Pablo – dedicated inner lanes over the corridor, signal prioritization and distinct, rail-like stations. Another shorter BRT corridor east-west along University Avenue would complement the San Pablo and Telegraph BRT services well, tying them together and connecting Downtown Berkeley and the dense University corridor to West Berkeley and Emeryville. Again, dedicated median lanes with rail-like stations would maximize ridership and transit effectiveness. The third and most significant proposed infrastructure investment in this study area is the implementation of a Bus Rapid Transit “Super-Loop” in the style of San Diego MTD’s SuperLoop service in La Jolla. Fully dedicated lanes and stations would begin at MacArthur BART and continue on a loop Emeryville, including a stop at the Watergate office tower complex. The short length of this corridor could allow for very frequent service, and prioritization would ensure speedy travel times. This type of transit service is exactly what sustains a transit oriented community, and it could help re-orient Emeryville towards transit instead of the current automobile-dependent model of its development.

Longer trips that begin outside the study area could also be greatly aided with the strategic addition of cost-effective infrastructure. Current express bus service generally caters to “traditional” commuters traveling to San Francisco in the AM peak and returning to the East Bay in the PM peak. AC Transit has, however, attempted to address the reverse commute to Emeryville and West Berkeley with the Z Transbay Line. This line is slow, runs infrequently and does not effectively serve many of the high travel demand destinations in the area. The BRT Super-Loop mentioned earlier would be key in a re-orientation of express bus service in the area. With HOV lane connections to the super loop from I-80 near Ashby Avenue and I-580 near MacArthur Boulevard, express bus service could rapidly and effectively serve travelers from as far away as Vallejo and Castro Valley. Current express bus services simply bypasses the area on the freeway – missing out on nearly 30% of the travel market that originates or is destined to West Berkeley and Emeryville. Some bus service that currently serves Downtown San Francisco from various East Bay destinations could be rerouted around the Super-Loop with a surprisingly small amount of delay (likely around 10 minutes), massively increasing viability of Transbay services that have seen a decline in ridership in recent years due to job fragmentation across the area.

A longer-term solution to mobility along the corridor lies in the vastly underused railway right-of-way currently used by Amtrak. The under construction eBART line in Eastern Contra Costa County and SPRINTER line in Northern San Diego County have set precedents for diesel multiple unit light rail service in California. As a first stage towards eventual electrification, DMU service could easily and cheaply be provided along the Amtrak right of way. Stations spaced between 0.75 and 1 mile apart along the corridor could support transit oriented development yet still allow for quick regional service. In fact, this DMU would be best utilized if it were extended outside the project area along the Amtrak right-of-way to Jack London Square or the Colosseum in Oakland, and to Richmond or further north in the other direction. Such a project would fulfill the requirements of the currently proposed wBART extension north of Richmond and also improve utilization of the existing corridor without requiring any new right-of-way. Even better, this line could connect to a future Transbay Tube, as suggested by Yonah Freemark over the the Transport Politic.

Many exciting options exist for serving this largely neglected portion of the Bay Area with transit. Improving mobility in the Eastshore Freeway Corridor is already underway with the ICM project, and it can only get better from here.


Caltrans Freeway Plans for the Bay Area

In the 1950’s and 1960’s traffic engineers ran wild with plans for urban freeways in the United States. The general consensus was that freeways had no downsides and were not visual blights, pollution emitters, and neighborhood dividers. Even as the public mood changed against freeways in the 1970’s and 1980’s, State Departments of Transportation continued to try to follow through with their grandiose plans for urban freeways.

This map shows plans for urban freeways in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was inspired to create this map when I saw several proposed freeway maps created by Caltrans from 1945 to 1986. These maps made me think of the vast changes in the geography of the area that these freeways would have created. CA 93 along San Pablo Dam Road would have ramped up suburban development around Tilden Regional Park, a Bay Area wilderness treasure, and CA 77, CA 13 and CA 61 would tear through the urban fabric of Oakland. Note that most of the freeways proposed in San Francisco were defeated early, in 1959, by the Freeway Revolts. I hope this map makes you think about the massive changes new freeways can make in undeveloped areas and inspire you to oppose the continuation of the 20th century pattern of wilderness-freeway-sprawl.

California High Speed Rail through the Pacheco Pass

Part 2 of a series on the potential alignments of California High Speed Rail.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with AutoCad, Google Earth, and the California High Speed Rail Authority’s website with the goal of creating an up-to-date .kml file of the current proposed route for the CHSR, with specific attention to the alternative analysis.  Starting with today’s post, and continuing for the next couple months, I will be presenting the 2010 proposed alignments and analyzing the alternatives that the CHSRA will carry forward.  The purpose of these kml files is not to show the exact route but rather to help gain a general overview of the alignment alternatives and the types of structures necessary for each alternative.

There are only three places on the San Jose-Merced section where the CHSR horizontal alignment has been finalized: first, between San Jose and Morgan Hill; second, the climb out of Gilroy up to San Luis Rey Reservoir; and third, the brief flat section in the San Joaquin Valley from the California Aqueduct to the a few miles east of I-5.  Other than that, there are 32 possible horizontal alignments on the roughly 100-mile segment of the route between Diridon Station (situated above the current station) and a few miles west of Chowchilla.

The CHSRA settled on the SR-87/I-280 aerial approach to Diridon Station after eliminating seven alternatives.  This segment is going to have significant constructability issues due to business displacement and a gigantic aerial structure over both freeways.  The alignment avoids much of downtown San Jose at the expense of the Almaden neighborhood.

The alignment will then descend to run at-grade next to the Caltrain tracks.  The Caltrain tracks, owned by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, will need to be shifted east to accommodate the two CHSR tracks.  After the PCJPB ownership ends near Pullman Way in San Jose, the tracks ascend to an aerial structure, staying outside the right of way of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR), a national freight railroad that has been understandably reluctant to share their right-of-way with the CHSRA.  The alignment will continue adjacent to the UPRR tracks until Morgan Hill.

At this point, two horizontal alternatives diverge: one takes the tracks along US 101, the other along the east side of the UPRR right-of-way.  These two sections will connect with one of two alternatives in Gilroy: an alternative that runs through and has a station in downtown Gilroy (with an option for a trench), and an alternative that runs east of Gilroy with a station east of the outlet stores on Leavesley Road.  The East of UPRR alignment will require a relocation of the Monterey Highway.  The CHSRA prefers the UPRR alternatives because they follow existing transportation corridors and provides the quickest time between Morgan Hill and Gilroy (8.75 minutes).  The trench option, demanded by the City of Gilroy to reduce visual impacts of an aerial structure, would create a 5-mile, 185-foot wide trench, but would require use of the Union Pacific right-of-way.

The east of Gilroy alternatives are not preferred, but are carried forward because of reduced residential displacements and to placate the City of Gilroy.  Unfortunately, the East Gilroy alternatives would place a station on Leavesley Road.  A station here would not only create a visual impact in this now-agricultural area, but also reduce connectivity with Caltrain and a future commuter rail line to Monterey.

East of Gilroy, the construction team will face “steep terrain, narrow valleys, and engineering challenges.”  In this Pacheco Pass section (chosen over Altamont for a more direct route to the Bay from Los Angeles), bridges in excess of 300’ in height as well as intrusion into the San Luis Reservoir, the San Joaquin National Cemetary, Pacheco State Park, or Mt. Hamilton Nature Conservancy were deemed unallowable.  Using Quantm, a computer model to identify effective alignments, the Authority picked one alignment and a deviation near the San Luis Rey Reservoir (“Close to 152” Alternative).  Both alignments include 8 tunnels, with the longest tunnel being 22,700 feet (4.3 miles) long.

The San Joaquin Valley subsection has been reduced to two alternatives along Avenue 21 and 24 and Henry Miller Avenue.  Avenue 24 has more severe impacts in Chowchilla where the route calls for a wye connecting the Los Angeles and Sacramento branches, but has eight less grade separations and effects 81 less acres of farmland when compared with the Avenue 21 alignment.

The San Jose to Merced section will face significant challenges in working with the Union Pacific Railroad and the cities along the US-101 corridor between Gilroy and San Jose.  The Pacheco Pass section will present some of the most difficult engineering challenges along the entire alignment.

Here is the .kmz file for Google Earth.

CAHSR’s Preliminary Alignment on the Peninsula

Narrow Right-of-Way in San Mateo

For the past six months, I’ve been working with AutoCad, Google Earth, and the California High Speed Rail Authority’s website with the goal of creating an up-to-date .kml file of the current proposed route for the CHSR, with specific attention to the alternative analysis. Starting with today’s post, and continuing for the next couple months, I will be presenting the 2010 proposed alignments and analyzing the alternatives that the CHSRA will carry forward. The purpose of these kml files is not to show the exact route but rather to help gain a general overview of the alignment alternatives and the types of structures necessary for each alternative.

As a native San Franciscan, I thought it would be best to start with San Francisco and head south during this review of the California High Speed Rail alignments. This section has been a major talking point as a part of the entire California High Speed Rail debate. Due to prohibitive costs,the High Speed Rail Authority has been reluctant to bury a significant portion of the alignment,much to the dismay of local communities who fear not only lowered property values, but also the prospect of their communities being “divided in two” by the high speed rail right of way.

Along with the Los Angeles to Anaheim section, this section of the alignment is unique in that,at this point in the design process, there is only one horizontal alignment under consideration;that is, there is only one right-of-way path. In this section, alignment alternatives along I-280 and US-101 were ruled out due to design challenges. An I-280 alignment would have been too curvaceous to allow for the Prop 1A guaranteed 2 hours and 40 minutes between LA and SF and the US-101 path would be too expensive due to the multiple overpasses already in place on the freeway. Instead, the CHSRA chose to pursue the current Caltrain right-of-way as the preferred horizontal alignment.

That is to say, the Caltrain alignment is not without its design challenges. The right-of-way in some parts of the peninsula is only 50’ wide, much narrower than the 91’ expected to be necessary for even the narrowest of high speed rail structures. Downtown San Mateo and Redwood City, in particular, present difficult engineering challenges due to their narrow right-of-ways. As of September 2010, the HSR Authority settled on three designs. Design A includes more aerial structures and is likely to meet the most opposition from Peninsula cities. Design B places many of the aerial structures below grade in trenches or tunnels. Design B1, labeled B1 because it is a variation on Design B, places even more track below grade.

On the corridor, HSR will be sharing the right-of-way and the four tracks with an electrified Caltrain, meaning that the HSR will be restricted to 90mph on the Peninsula. The Authority is also choosing between a possible “Mid-Peninsula Station” in Redwood City, Palo Alto, or Mountain View. Either one or none of these stations will be selected.

You are free to view this map but please know that it is not affiliated in any way with the California High Speed Rail Authority, and Sam only used publicly available information to compile it. If you’d like to share it, please attribute it to Sam Levy or Wilshire/Vermont. He spent a lot of time getting this thing together. -Karl


Sorry about the ads. WordPress won’t host a .kmz file.

BART’s Future Washington Metro-Style

This is a map I composed my Senior Year in high school, cleaned up and updated for posting on here. It details the potential future configuration of rapid transit in the Bay Area, including running Caltrain as a rapid transit service with an integrated fare structure. The graphic style invokes the classic Washington Metro map, where uniformity takes precedence over geographical accuracy and scale. A metro map, after all, is intended to help you get around the metro system, not drive around the area. I hope you will find this map as enjoyable to view as it was for me to create.

High Speed Rail Drama: A Victory for California

California has done it again. In the re-appropriation of Federal high speed rail funds, California received an additional $624 million in funding for it’s high speed rail program. Crucially, this announcement means that the first segment of the CAHSR program, a line from Fresno to Corcoran, will be extended to Bakersfield. This extension will largely silence many critics who were already calling this segment a “line to nowhere.” Fresno and Bakersfield have a total combined MSA population of 1.7 million, and a segment from perhaps Merced to Bakersfield could be considered the minimal operating segment and actually run revenue service. At the very least, Amtrak California’s San Joaquins line could use the line to massively reduce travel time in the corridor.

The political ramifications of building the initial segment of CAHSR in the Central Valley are actually quite positive. By building a greenfield (entirely new right of way) line in the Central Valley rather than focusing funding on improving commuter rail services in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas, the California High Speed Rail Authority is essentially guaranteeing the future completion of the system – political desire will come from both the LA and San Francisco areas, forcing the eventual connection of this Central Valley segment with San Francisco and Los Angeles. Equally important is ensuring the continued support of the state and federal governments in completing spur lines to Sacramento and San Diego, and even potentially connecting to the planned Desert Xpress privately-funded HSR line between Victorville and Las Vegas. Far in the future, a high speed line from Sacramento to Eugene, Oregon could be feasible and connect all the way up to Vancouver, BC.

I am strongly confident that the approach the CAHSRA has taken to building high speed rail in California will be successful. In my past occupation, I was able to meet many of the people behind the Authority, and I can tell you that they mean business. The Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco, the eventual northern terminus of the initial line, is already under construction and will be a shining example of what high speed rail stations can do for economic development and urban renewal in California and indeed the entire US. Furthermore, I am convinced that once California’s initial HSR segment from San Francisco to Los Angeles opens, and likely turns a profit, politicians in Sacramento and Washington will become convinced that high speed rail, in the right markets, is a wise infrastructure investment. Many people thought the Interstate Highway System was destined to be a failure before it was built. The vastly improved mobility of freeways pales in comparison to the benefits of high speed rail. Just look at Paris and London – two cities on approximately the same scale as Los Angeles – San Jose – San Francisco. The air market between these two cities died off quickly with the opening of the high speed rail line and subsequent openings of further high speed segments on the Britsh side have made the service even more popular.

I cannot stress how important high speed rail is for the future of California. Wisconsin and Ohio’s loss is our gain here in California, and as soon as the EIR/EIS is complete, CAHSR could begin construction within 12 months. That means two years from now, or even slightly earlier, the shovels could be hitting the dirt in Fresno and Bakersfield. I know I’ll be there to ride on the first train, and will be a regular user of CAHSR when the Los Angeles – San Francisco segment is complete. I hope that day arrives sooner rather than later. I’m tired of the TSA microwaving my body so I can get on a highly polluting aircraft for the short one hour flight home. I rest my case.

HOV Lanes: A Politically Popular Disaster

Carpool lanes, like many other forms of transportation investment, appear to make highways and driving more green, making expansion of automobile facilities politically acceptable. This “diet Coke” concept, that slightly improving the environmental impact of driving is “green” transport policy, has been taken to new extremes in California, where gigantic, elaborate systems of Carpool (or HOV) lanes now dot the landscape. In Los Angeles, the El Monte Busway, a parallel 2-lane freeway to the I-10 Freeway between Union Station and El Monte, was the first fixed-guideway transit investment in Los Angeles history, installed by the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1974. This facility was originally for buses only, a scheme that allowed the two lanes to carry more passengers more quickly than the parallel 10-lane freeway. Disastrously, a few years after its opening, the El Monte Busway was opened to HOV traffic, here meaning any motor vehicle with 3 or more passengers in it during peak hours and 2 or more passengers otherwise. This change cut the busway’s capacity and reduced speeds, making transit less desirable.

So what is the deal with Carpool lanes anyway? Do they work? What is even their intended purpose?

All of these are legitimate questions. Carpool lanes are intended, generally, to alleviate congestion on the “normal” lanes of a freeway and provide an incentive for solo drivers to ride with more people in the car, theoretically increasing person throughput on a corridor. This purpose is often lost in practice, and carpool lane construction is simply a way of “greenwashing” highway capacity increases. Just as with any other expansion of capacity, carpool lane installation eventually increases traffic congestion due to induced demand, the research-proven principle that if you build it, they will come.

Now do they work? Can a carpool lane facility, especially one as elaborate as the Harbor Transitway in the photograph above, increase the average occupancy of automobiles in a corridor? In one word, no. The installation of carpool lanes along a freeway has been shown to increase carpooling by four percent. Such a tiny number of carpoolers would suggest that any money spent on highway expansion should be spent on general capacity improvements, rather than dedicated carpool infrastructure (offramps, grade separations, interchange ramps) that exist, especially in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California. Like many issues in transportation the continued construction of HOV/Carpool lanes is purely political.

Many special interest groups love highway expansion. These include truck drivers, construction workers’ unions, construction firms and engineering firms. Politicians have a precedent of spending most transportation money on highways, and the lobbying from these groups encourages them to continue. The decision to install carpool infrastructure instead of general highway expansion is often made because it makes projects look more environmentally conscious. It also helps Environmental Impact Statements receive public approval. In everyone’s mind a carpool lane must help the environment, right? The four percent number conclusively proves that this is not the case. Carpool lanes are a waste.

So what to do with current carpool lane infrastructure? Use it in a more efficient manner: convert most or all of California’s High Occupancy Vehicle lanes into Bus-Only Lanes, all day, every day. In this post, I vocally complained about moving at five miles per hour in the HOV lane on Interstate 80 coming back from work one day last summer. This HOV lane, from Hercules to the San Francisco Bay Bridge is actually HOV-3, meaning your vehicle must have 3 occupants to use it. Because of lax enforcement and the sheer volume of cars, this lane moves just as slowly as the “regular” freeway lanes.

Converting this, and all other, HOV lanes to bus-only operation could dramatically increase bus capacity across California. AC Transit’s Transbay Bus Lines would operate more quickly, allowing for an increase in service, and travel times would dramatically decrease, especially during the evening peak. All across California, express bus service could flourish, taking advantage of the near-rediculous carpool infrastructure already in place along many freeways.

Sadly, for this idea to become reality, I would have to wake up on another planet, one where there is NOT a God-ordained right to drive an automobile, as it often seems is the case here in the United States of America. The crisis in operating funds for transit agencies would also prevent this fantasy from becoming reality. Like most of my reflections at the end of these articles, the solution to transportation investment is a large change in priorities, with the government moving as many people as it can, not cars.

Wilshire & Geary: Two Streets and Two Subway Projects

Like many other things, California was the birthplace of modern rail transit in the United States. BART in the San Francisco Bay Area was the first complete, publicly built, rapid transit system in the United States and represented a paradigm shift in the mentality of transit planners. BART ran from the Outer East Bay (Fremont and Concord) to San Francisco and Oakland’s Downtowns. The line to San Francisco is a branch, and the system is rooted in Oakland. This stands in stark contrast to the New York City Subway or Chicago L, which serve the center city extensively and end in the inner suburbs. These cities have heavy rail, diesel commuter systems which use existing freight tracks without grade separation.

The Bay Area got BART instead of a traditional commuter rail system because of politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson was supporting his Great Society idea, injecting a large amount of public spending for grand, shiny projects like heavy rail systems. Diesel locomotives, or even traditional electric locomotives used on the Northeast Corridor, simply were not as cool. Now, the problem when the “cool” factor gets into transit planning is cost. BART continues to expand at the insane cost of 200+ million dollars per mile. More significantly, BART is the only heavy rail (subway) technology that is feasible to build in Northern California due potential to connect to the current network. BART’s trains are over 700 feet long, with far too many seats and too few doors for urban service.

Los Angeles has a heavy rail service also, but it is entirely different than BART. Los Angeles’ Subway, the Red and Purple Lines, only serve the City of Los Angeles and they travel the most dense areas in all of Los Angeles County. This distinction is easy to see in ridership per mile, where Los Angeles has about 9,000 riders per mile, while BART has 4,000. Train lengths in the LA Subway are 450 feet, and cars have three doors and far fewer seats than a BART train. This is the type of true subway both Los Angeles and San Francisco Need.

The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast two streets in two big, dense cities, that both need heavy rail subway lines under them. Also, I will go into the reasons why one of these subways will be built in the next ten years, and the other won’t.

These two streets are Geary and Wilshire Boulevards in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Both streets carry the two busiest bus lines in the United States, the 38-38L in San Francisco and the 20-720-920 in Los Angeles. These lines carry over 60,000 passengers a day, a huge amount for a bus line. Metro cannot physically run more buses on Wilshire during peak hour because of intense bunching. Both of these transportation corridors are East-West with parallel bus service also carrying over 100,000 passengers a day on the 1-2-5-31 in San Francisco and the 2-4-14-16-316-704-714 in Los Angeles. Obviously transit demand in these corridors is huge.

The legacy of BART and the Red Line have dictated the progress on high capacity transit alternatives on Wilshire and Geary. Both Metro and SFMTA are implementing exclusive bus lanes on these streets. In neither situation are exclusive lanes sufficient. Underground, high frequency, heavy rail transit is sorely needed in both situations. Since Los Angeles began with a legitimate urban subway system, instead of a suburb-centric heavy rail system, extension along Wilshire Boulevard is (relatively) cheap and feasible. Under Measure R’s schedule, the Westside Subway Extension will reach Westwood by 2036, although with the 30/10 plan, the entire project may be complete 15 years earlier.

This situation leaves us with Geary Boulevard in desperate need of heavy rail transit. The organization of the BART District, with equal power shared across Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties, essentially requires equal geographic distribution of BART dollars and extensions. When Contra Costa County got the extension from Concord to Pittsburg/Bay Point, Alameda County got the extension from Bay Fair to Dublin/Pleasanton. San Francisco essentially gained nothing during this time, but that is due to Proposition K, San Francisco’s transportation sales tax, not including any funding for BART extensions. In a new round of extending BART, Alameda County is getting the Warm Springs Extension, and potentially BART to Livermore, while Contra Costa County is getting eBART. Again, San Francisco County is doing its own thing with the Central Subway, Van Ness and Geary BRT and the Transbay Transit Center Program receiving the bulk of the funding.

The essence of the issue with a Geary Boulevard subway is it requires a New Transbay Tube, a mega project on the scale of East Side Access and Access to the Region’s Core Projects in New York City, with a cost that could exceed 6 billion dollars. The issue for BART and the Bay Area is finding a sustainable funding model for this huge project, in my opinion a three way split between San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa, so that San Francisco has a platform on which to build its new heavy rail service to the Richmond District.

Maybe, after enough pushing, BART will become more of an urban network, with higher stop frequency in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, and large transit villages outside the urban core.

The Failures of Cost Effectiveness

In my last two posts, I have discussed large-scale modifications of Los Angeles’ Light Rail System, namely large subway segments replacing existing surface tracks for the purpose of increasing capacity by removing two critical bottlenecks on the system: the connection between the Gold Line and the Regional Connector and the divergence at the intersection of Washington Blvd and Flower St. This post will further reveal my position on capital funding of transit projects, and why heavy investment in rail infrastructure expensive and politically difficult, yet far more beneficial in the long term.

Cost effectiveness is a hot term in transit funding these days. The Federal Transit Administration makes an objective review of all projects vying for New Starts funding based on cost effectiveness. This evaluation broadly looks at three things: cost of the project, ridership projections and solvency of the agency sponsoring the project. Ridership is looked at in terms of gross riders, new transit riders and passengers who switch transit modes. Sponsoring agencies get high scores if they lack budget deficits, and have operations money to pay for the New Starts project if built. In this formula, riders who switch from driving to transit are disproportionately valuable for the cost effectiveness score.

This cost effectiveness rating is helpful in weeding out some really awful projects from New Starts money, like the Orange Line Metrorail in Miami, but critically doesn’t account for land use changes and long-term economic impact of large-scale transit projects.

The most modern examples of high cost transit projects in the United States are, of course, the three large heavy rail systems build in the early 1970’s in San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The Washington Metro, widely considered the best of the three, has made an incredible impact on the DC Area in the last 40 years. Downtown Washington has remained a center, and inner suburbs like Bethesda, Silver Spring and the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor have vastly grown in density and livability. Many of the practices followed by the planners of the Washington Metro contributed to this success. These included expensive subways in areas of limited density, like Rosslyn-Ballston, an entire network planned, with construction in phases, and a general vision for the future. A newer extension to Dulles Airport abandons many of these principles, especially the lack of a subway through the Tyson’s Corner area. The reason a tunnel through Tyson’s will not be a part of the extension is the FTA New Starts cost effectiveness requirement, which would have classified the project as “medium” instead of “medium-high”, potentially eliminating 900 million dollars of Federal funding.

In 40 years, Tyson’s Corner could be an entirely different place, with far more density, due to a large investment in rail transit now. Paying a little bit more now could facilitate a huge amount of future economic growth. Situations like the original Washington Metro System and BART in Northern California show the massive growth high-investment rail transit can attract after 40+ years of existence. These situations encourage the high-cost subway alternatives for light rail capacity growth in Los Angeles, which will massively increase total network capacity, permitting the very high frequency rail transit that attracts development. In 40 years, Los Angeles could be an entirely different place, with dense corridors surrounding high capacity rail transit lines. If we concentrate on the upfront costs of projects and neglect the long term benefit of higher investment in infrastructure, we will miss out on a whole new generation of transportation systems in the United States. A dollar now, invested in high-quality infrastructure, will be 10 or more dollars in the future in economic benefit. We just have to overcome political squabbling and funding gaps. An easy solution is to redirect Federal highway subsidies, but that is a story for another time.

Please, chime in. This article is just the beginning of my thoughts and I would like to hear those of my readers.

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.