Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The real Top 10 Questions for the BART project


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Instead of making another deceptive memo at the taxpayers' expense, VTA should be outright honest about the status of the BART project. If VTA's staff cannot do it right, VTA Watch will do it right for the sake of our taxpayers.

How does the recent defeat of Santa Clara County's proposed 1/2 cent sales tax increase impact the BART to "Silicon Valley" project?

VTA, along with SVLG and others, were counting on the 2006 Measure A to provide more funding to VTA. Instead of admitting the reality of voters' rejection of VTA's policy by denying more taxes to VTA, VTA is pretending nothing has happened with the hope that voters will pass another tax increase someday in the future. As the way it goes, VTA will continue to withhold a no-new-tax alternative as a way to pressure the voters to pass another tax; basically increase the tax for a lousy plan or increase the tax for a lousy plan.

Why is BART the "best solution" for this corridor?

BART is not the best solution for the corridor. The so call "full evaluation" was performed in 2001 with the full and clear bias for BART in a specific alignment and against any other modes and alignments. All VTA had to do was to somehow make up the ridership numbers and cost to make the pre-determined politically-driven plan to work.

Best access to jobs? It doesn't go to the job rich area bounded by 237, 101, and 880, the so called the "Golden Triangle." Sure, no transfers to the BART system, but not a transfer-less trip to where the jobs are. What about a direct Tri-Valley and possibly Altamont Pass connection, where it is rated as one of the most congested corridors in the Bay Area? Forget about it! Should this much taxpayer's money be spent on the BART extension that, for many Santa Clara County residents, means faster trips on transit to A's baseball games in Oakland?

Why not upgrade the existing commuter rail lines such as the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) to the Caltrain line?

According to the 2000 Measure A, ACE upgrade is clearly listed as one of the projects eligible to receive Measure A funding. At that time, despite criticisms, Measure A supporters claimed there was enough funding that the BART extension would not be impacting the upgrade of the ACE line. Today, VTA, following the pre-June 6 SVLG talking points and outdated/misguided poll numbers, is saying that the 2000 Measure A is all about BART and nothing about ACE and everything else.

Due to the increasing slower freight train traffic, what ACE needs is a dedicated right of way to enhance speed and reliability. What VTA has is a dedicated right of way between Fremont and San Jose. Instead of giving ACE the use of a publicly owned right of way to improve reliability and increase ridership, VTA plans to leave it empty until the day when BART, which its tracks are 100% incompatible to ACE, is built.

The rail mode with no direct connection to the Tri-Valley and no connection over the Altamont Pass gets everything, and the one with direct connection to the Tri-Valley and the Altamont Pass gets nothing. Is it fair? Does VTA care?

Is BART to "Silicon Valley" really going to happen?

If you're one of the contractors and consultants working on the project and would receive millions of dollars of payment from it, you will want to believe it will happen. The federal government, which VTA will require approval from before receiving any federal funding for final design and construction, is questioning this project. Even if VTA has a new tax, it will not be a slam dunk.

Why did VTA temporarily withdraw the project from preliminary engineering in the federal New Starts process?

VTA withdrew the process knowing that the project will face certain rejection from the federal government, as this project would be evaluated along with other rail and bus expansion projects throughout the nation. Rather than facing a rejection, VTA was hoping to get back to the process next year if the 2006 Measure A is passed, which didn't happen. Even with a new tax, there is no guarantee that the federal government will approve it. VTA's financial plan and ridership projection for BART are as flawed whether there's a new tax or not.

How many people will ride BART to "Silicon Valley"?

VTA is projecting 111,500 daily riders, but it is a questionable projection. To put it into perspective, what VTA is projecting is about 1/3 of the total BART ridership today, which half of it is transbay ridership, a corridor that has limited highway competition (one toll bridge). In addition, VTA projection is the nearly the same as the Red Line subway in Los Angeles, a system with twice as many station and lower fares, and a city with the population many more times than in Santa Clara County. Finally, VTA's projection for the BART line is more than the entire VTA bus ridership today! In comparison, the bus system in Los Angeles carries 10 times more riders than the Red Line.

It is not the first time a BART extension uses questionable projection. The latest extension to SFO was built using phony projections and now SamTrans, who carries the responsibility of paying the operating subsidy, is now suffering from low BART ridership.

The projected ridership numbers are great, but how can you be sure that people will ride BART?

The statement "more people choose to ride BART than other modes" is balony beyond reason. People choose to ride transit because it goes where people want to go in a reasonble time and at a reasonable cost, regardless of how the train looks like or who operates it. Caltrain was able to increase its ridership by over 20% by offering express service. The ridership on the Orange Line (Bus rapid transit) in Los Angeles has grown beyond projection. Caltrain and Orange Line are not BART, but they're transit successes.

What made BART a success today is the high density urban growth in San Francisco, and the limited highway competition on the Bay Bridge. Neither case is true in Santa Clara County, but VTA expects the same number of boardings at a downtown San Francisco station to apply in downtown San Jose. As we all know, the airport's landing path is limiting the building heights in downtown San Jose.

Will the project solve our traffic problem?

According to MTC, the second and third most congested spots last year were on the I-580 in the Tri-Valley area. The BART extension, unlike ACE, will not provide any alternative to this growing corridor.

How much will the project cost and who's paying for it?

What VTA stated omits the financing cost. When that, and other costs, are accounted for, the cost will be in the range of $6 to 7 billion. The construction timing and method proposed by VTA for the BART projects require a large cash flow that VTA doesn't have without bonding. What is also not included is the 100%+ cost overruns that other BART extensions have experienced.

The BART extension simply is a new Bay Bridge East Span in the making, except that the politicians themselves cannot pass new taxes on you like bridge tolls. However, voters should not be pressured to pass a new tax if VTA runs out of money in the midst of digging a subway in downtown San Jose.

How does funding for the BART Extension relate to other VTA transit service and projects?

VTA has passed an expenditure plan, but it requires a new tax to be effective. Even so, the expenditure plan provides no guarantees and protection to the other projects. Over the years, VTA has consistently used inflated tax revenue projections to make false claims that all projects are funded, and VTA has consistently refused to consider other scenarios where no new taxes are needed and projects that can fulfill all of the 2000 Measure A goals and beyond. As long as BART is in VTA's plan, all other non-BART projects are essentially screwed.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your response to VTA's BART memo is a little unfair.

1. Solving "our" traffic problems in the Tri-Valley

The heavily congested segment of I-580 that you devote so much attention to runs from Dublin to Pleasanton ( MCT map ). Should VTA divert its efforts, and Santa Clara County taxpayers, their money, to congestion relief in a different county?

2. "VTA plans to leave [its Fremont - San Jose right-of-way] empty until the day when BART, which its [sic] tracks are 100% incompatible to [sic] ACE, is built"

Should VTA lay down conventional tracks today, for ACE's 3 (!) weekday-only round-trips, and then rip up the tracks when BART is built? Interestingly, ACE is about to add a 4th round-trip, even though it's only filling 65% of seats today and had originally pledged to fill 85% before adding a 4th train ( ACE 4th train backgrounder ).

3. "SamTrans ... is now suffering from low BART ridership [on the SFO extension]"

Yes, ridership on BART's SFO extension is low today. Should it not have been built, not have built when it was, or not have built it as well as it was? Admittedly, it is heartbreaking to stand in the mezzanine of Millbrae Station and gaze down on 3 BART platforms, only 1 of which is in use. It was also heartbreaking to endure unnecessary delays on the original BART system, which, for the sake of saving a few dollars, was built without a third track through Oakland, with insufficient cross-overs, and with one fewer train yard than necessary. Those features were added later, presumably at a higher cost. One day people will be very thankful that the BART SFO extension was built, built when it was, and built as it was.

BART-to-San Jose, for its part, is not a perfect project, but some of your arguments against it are diversions.

accountablevta said...

Rebuttals:

1. One of the reasons why VTA chose to build BART over other option is that it would supposedly attract more commuters from other counties to ride BART in.

It is important to remember that VTA has to pay more than just the construction cost for BART. VTA has to pay a "buy in" cost that supposedly compensates BART for whatever "impacts" the extension would placed on the rest of the system. Also, VTA would have to contract BART (without the opportunity to competitively bid) to operate the system. Building BART essentially mean spending more money outside of Santa Clara County, not just one time but ongoing. Of course we must not forget that VTA hasn't pay SamTrans a dime for the Caltrain's right of way.

The idea is not to use Santa Clara County money in another county. The idea is that Santa Clara should wisely spends its money. Since the BART extension will not provide a direct trip from the Tri-Valley and beyond, what kind of ridership and congestion relief would you expect? If VTA were to spend more on ACE, even only between Fremont and San Jose, can make the ACE service much more attractive as an option to the congested freeways.

2. VTA shouldn't build tracks for ACE and then rip it up, but to build standard gauge tracks that ACE can operate on and run more local train service on top of ACE. In the East Coast, the Northeast corridor is shared by Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and SEPTA. SEPTA's subway like local trains operate alongside with higher-speed Acela trains.

Having separate tracks for essentially same type of service (regional trains with stations miles apart) doesn't make sense. In the long run, a standard gauge corridor permit ACE to run more trains without paying more to UP and build separate tracks.

3. What SamTrans could have done is to design it correctly, stick to a well designed operating plan that fits the budget and ridership, and allow it to upgrade.

SamTrans now has to pay BART to pay its contractors/employees to clean the unused platform at Millbrae. It is a huge expense to maintain an unused piece of infastructure. Although the cost to build something in the future will be higher than today, but at least we won't have to pay maintaining it until whenever it becomes actually useful.

On the other hand, the cost to upgrade would go down if it is properly planned.

Anonymous said...

Paying a buy-in fee to BART is quite reasonable. The original BART system represents a huge sunk cost, borne almost entirely by local taxpayers in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. The project began before federal "urban mass transportation" grants existed. Shouldn't other counties contribute to the sunk cost of the original system if they desire extensions?

The original counties have a stronger financial obligation to BART than San Mateo County does, or than Santa Clara County might, even in spite of buy-in fees and operating subsidy contracts. The original counties have property and sales taxes that: (1) are dedicated exclusively to BART, (2) are permanent, (3) were enabled by special state legislation, and (4) predate Proposition 13. Special legislation allowed a district-wide rather than county-by-county vote on the property tax and lowered the approval threshold from 2/3 to 60%. The half-cent sales tax was imposed by the state, during the Reagan governorship (Reagan, of all people!). The circumstances behind the original, permanent BART taxes can never be repeated.

Regarding the San Jose - Fremont corridor, the beauty of the BART solution is that it is seamless. For trips beyond Fremont, it makes use of an existing network of BART stations, placed where the action is.

Conventional rail passengers, on the other hand, could only get off in Centerville, far away from Fremont's modern shopping developments, hospitals, etc.; at Union City (planned BART connection); at an isolated station in Hayward; at Oakland Coliseum (existing BART connection, with a long walk); at Jack London Square, far from the business activity in Downtown Oakland; at a station in Emeryville, far from shopping developments but at least close to some office buildings; at a station in Berkeley, far from Downtown, the University, etc.; or at Richmond (existing BART connection).

Conventional rail passengers heading to Walnut Creek would be out of luck; only BART serves that area. Martinez, on the other hand, has a conventional rail station. Passengers heading to the Tri-Valley area would enjoy the conventional rail station near Downtown Pleasanton, which is ideal for leisure but useless for business (the Dublin/Pleasanton BART station is adjacent to the original and new business parks in Pleasanton). Livermore has a conventional rail station, though the transit center is set off from Downtown.

Overall, existing and planned conventional rail stations in the East Bay are not in prime locations, and many passengers would have to transfer to BART and/or to local buses to complete their trips. Passenger behavior research (e.g. in Toronto, home of the 5th largest US/Canada transit system) proves that transferring deters passengers. For those who still bother, transferring gives rise to long door-to-door travel times.

Your suggestion that it is better to build on the cheap and upgrade later has been proven wrong time and time again with bridges, freeways, airports and other public projects. Construction costs have escalated drastically. Environmental review regulations have been expanded. Local taxation restrictions have been imposed. Neighborhood opposition always grows with time. Public projects that are possible today -- if only barely -- will be impossible tomorrow.

accountablevta said...

Finally a shameless BART supporter responds.

Not disputing the history in regards to BART financing, it is important to note that the financing and governing structure of BART is not repeated essentially anywhere in the county, even though rail has expanded almost everywhere. Other cities finance and govern rail from a comprehensive, multi-modal perspective. The problem with BART is that it is a single mode and single technology agency. If there's a need that is served better with other modes, then BART the agency is out of the picture.

Another problem with the BART government structure, and participation from Santa Clara County is that Santa Clara County will be kept captive of BART directors up north for decades to come. Since BART directors are elected, often with the campaign support from BART unions, BART directors will have an incentive to give BART unions sweet contracts and pass the cost to VTA. Can VTA be at the bargaining table with BART unions and/or vote on labor contracts? No. Can VTA use its own employees or outside contractors to run BART? No.
In contrast, VTA does participate on the procurement of operating contracts for Caltrain, even through has not paid a dime for the right of way.

It is unfair to compare BART with the ways you describe other non-BART regional rail plans. Plans like Caltrain Metro East calls for a cross-platform interface with BART in Fremont.

Also, many suburban BART stations are located in inconvenient areas like freeway medians. Stations like Dublin/Pleasanton is not built for walking but for parking.

Also, we cannot forget that the proposed BART routing in the South Bay is poor. If you believe that transferring is bad, then this extension will not meet your expectation. Passengers will have to transfer to light rail if they want to go anywhere in the Golden Triangle. For someone coming from the Tri-Valley, the BART extension means three transfers (one on BART between Dublin line and the Fremont line, and another to light rail). ACE and Caltrain Metro East mean one or no transfer.

VTA Watch is not against transfers per se, but doesn't believe that more money should be spent on plans that require more transfers.

Upgrading makes sense, Caltrain has a right of way that can accomodate 4 tracks since the 19th century, and until recently these tracks are actually added for express service.

The problem of building too much at start is that it gives the public an impression of government waste and encourage them to vote against future spending. VTA has spent a lot of money on freeways and light rail but voters rejected Measure A last June as voters see empty light rail trains running around. What kind of confidence are you giving to voters when one leg of the BART wye near SFO is essentially "abandoned" for passenger service?

Anonymous said...

I don't want you to think for a moment that I believe BART is perfect. You are quite right that BART is beholden to union interests. So is VTA. And so is every other major transit agency in the Bay Area. Like San Mateo County, Santa Clara County would retain a modicum of control over how many units of service it purchases from BART.

My comparison of a trip from Santa Clara County through Fremont and beyond, with BART and with conventional rail, is quite fair. Let's not dicker over whether passengers would transfer from conventional trains to BART at Fremont, under the unofficial and informal "Caltrain Metro East" idea, or at Union City, under official and formal plans. (A direct, same-station transfer between conventional trains and BART is already being planned for Union City.)

I gave conventional rail the benefit of the doubt by listing all conventional rail stations in the East Bay, including two additional conventional-to-BART transfer points: the Capitol Corridor's Oakland Coliseum and Richmond stations.

Frankly, I'm not interested in transfer-free service to the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton (conventional rail solution) if I have to give up transfer-free service to Downtown Oakland (BART solution) and Downtown Berkeley (BART solution). It should be obvious which of these destinations will generate more demand.

Overall, centers of activity in the East Bay are better served by existing BART stations than by existing conventional rail stations. There are no plans to build new conventional rail stations closer to centers of activities like Downtown Oakland or Downtown Berkeley. The conventional rail solution is the one that would require more transfers for more passengers.

As a side note, I think it's amusing that you would hold up the Caltrain operating contract as an example of transit agency discretion. That contract isn't subject to competitive bidding. It goes to Amtrak automatically! Amtrak has very generous wages, benefits and work rules; unattractive liability insurance terms for commuter agencies; and other problems. Caltrain has said that it might introduce competitive bidding for the operating contract after the CEMOF project is complete (something about avoiding too much change all at once). I love Caltrain, but even I'm not holding my breath.

The Capitol Corridor -- more important when we're talking about San Jose / East Bay conventional rail -- also uses Amtrak for train operation. Competitive bidding for train operation isn't even on the radar screen at the CCJPA or within the Caltrans Division of Rail.

Since the project between Santa Clara County and the East Bay involves federal money, 13(c) would present another barrier to selecting an efficient private operator. Amtrak or BART, take your pick!

accountablevta said...

Although San Mateo County has exercised some authority to control cost by controlling some aspects of the service, the agreement between BART and SamTrans allows BART to run longer trains unilaterially and bills SamTrans for the increased train length, whether longer trains south of Daly City is needed or not.

You don't spend billions of dollar to solve a non-problem. The the number of commuters isn't going to go way up from downtown Oakland or downtown Berkeley, but from the Tri-Valley and the Central Valley. The problem with BART is that it tries to solve the kind of trips like to A's Baseball games in Oakland on weekends, rather than the everyday commutes people make over the Sunol Grade or the Altamont Pass. The BART extension clearly will not faciliate any future improvements in these corridors. There is nothing that ACE, Caltrain, BART, or VTA can do to get rid of the more than one transfers people have to make from these areas to the Golden Triangle. That alone defeats the stated goal of congestion relief.

The advantage of the Caltrain Metro East plan is that through service from the Central Valley can be provided while not losing the critical connectivity with BART. Due to the fact that BART is a non-standard gauge system and so expensive, something has to give. The Caltrain Metro East plan looks to the next 50 years while the BART plans looks to the last 30 years.

I don't doubt that some of destinations along the BART line are a lot more attractive to go to on the weekends (probably not downtown Oakland or Hayward), but as we know the roads aren't too congested on the weekends either.

And that indicates the ridership projection for the BART project is more phony.

Anonymous said...

I think we are still clashing over direct, transfer-free access to weekday versus weekend destinations.

Oakland City Center/12th Street BART Station = business center of Oakland.
--
Oakland Jack London Square Amtrak Station = leisure destination.

Downtown Berkeley BART Station = business and educational center of Berkeley.
--
Berkeley Amtrak Station = non-destination.

Dublin/Pleasanton BART Station = business center of Pleasanton (Hacienda Business Park + newer office developments)
--
Pleasanton ACE Station = leisure destination (Alameda County Fairgrounds and historic downtown)

And so on...

I think we're also clashing over the importance of providing direct, transfer-free service to dense, established East Bay population centers versus a low-density area.

Alameda County
population = 1.4 million
density = 2,000 people / square mile

Contra Costa County
population = 1 million
density = 1,400

--

San Joaquin County
population = 650,000
density = 451

Three guesses where transit demand will be stronger, now and for the foreseeable future...

(Approximate figures, from the RAND California data set.)

This will be my last contribution on this topic.

Please don't take very opportunity to knock VTA and BART. Someone who is concerned about economics, equity, sound planning, and the other issues that come up in your blog now and then would do better to examine the operating and capital money being spent on Caltrain south of Tamien and on ACE to San Joaquin County; the economic status of those lucky train riders; and the bona fide urban sprawl that those train services enable.

accountablevta said...

VTA Watch is not a fan of sprawl either, therefore opposes the BART extension. It is not only an issue of which cities deserve direct service, it is an issue of cost effectiveness and lost opportunities. If BART weren't so expensive and non-standard, it will be a non-issue, and in a perfect world, direct service should be available from everwhere. Instead of supporting a more cost-effective alternative, and focus on taking down institutional barriers that prevents more transit use (like incosistent fares, timetable, etc), VTA is making up numbers to justify an over-priced project, which guarantees the extension will be a failure once it is open. Do you think voters will continue to support a failed transit project?

Since ACE and Caltrain south of San Jose have far less service and mode share, highways and sprawl wins, these rail services, or lack of them, have little impact, especially when commuters are going to employment sites in Santa Clara County with plenty of parking. ACE and Caltrain improvements, if properly implemented, can help to manage sprawl and create more TOD opportunities in the backroom communities. Even many Caltrain supporters don't support electrification south of San Jose because of poor cost effectiveness.

Chris said...

So I can't follow most of this, but I've got a couple questions.

Since just about everything for BART is nonstandard, would expansion help bring costs down (since they can start buying more stuff in bulk) or is it still too high.

Caltrain is already going to be extended over the Dunbarton Bridge to the easy bay and costs a whole lot less. Doesn't it make more sense to turn Caltrain into a network like BART?

Nick said...

Chris:

To answer your first question, BART should not expand its network any further, except for small key connections like extending BART to connect with ACE in Downtown Livermore and building a Fremont Metro station to connect with ACE, Amtrack Capitols, High Speed Rail etc. Simply put, BART uses Track Gauge used by no other rail system in the world I believe. So expansion would just drive up matinence and operationg costs for both the BART district and contracted operations in San Mateo County and possibly Santa Clara County, making it even more expensive.

To answer your second question:
Yes! However, the network should not just be Caltrain, but a regional rail network of Caltrain, ACE, Amtrak, possible t-BART DMU, and possible future High Speed Rail, linking an ever expanding Bay Area or as someone has called it: "Megalonorcal."
An expansive regional rail network is essential as the Bay Area sprawls into the Central Valley.

johnd said...

The problem with using existing rail right-of-ways in the east bay is that they were built to transport freight to and from industrial areas. Unfortunately this is of little use to the commuter unless you happen to work at a auto body shop, junkyard, or gravel yard. Does anyone else remember what the view from caltrain was like up until a few years ago? There sure as hell weren't any fondue restaurants in the stations 10 years ago. Furthermore once you arrived at 4th and Townsend (more like abandoned warehouse land) you had to walk eight or so blocks past crack heads to get downtown. And this is a rail line which has seen regular passenger service for over 100 years.

Is BART perfect? Of course not, but for better or worse we are stuck with it for the foreseeable future and must rely on it as a vital backbone of Bay Area transit infastructure

accountablevta said...

Outside of downtowns, BART has mostly been following along existing right of ways. The BART line to Fremont parallels a freight line and goes through industrial areas. The BART line to SFO used to be a freight line as well.