Friday News – Bay Area, Miami, and HSR

The Bay Area’s BART rapid transit authority has been aggressively considering extensions to its lines for years now. This has led to a very spread-out system, more than 100 miles long, but with only one central two-track line through downtown San Francisco, the region’s core. As Transbay Blog has shown, the most important new extensions for the agency would be in this area that has so far been largely ignored by BART, because that central line, which is expected to handle virtually all of the system’s trains, is overcrowded now that BART is reaching up to 400,000 riders a day. So there have been numerous proposals to build a new transbay tunnel and connect it to a new subway line running under Gehry Boulevard.

But the transit system continues to emphasize its suburban extensions. Most recently, it built a line from South San Francisco to the San Francisco Airport and Milbrae on the West Side of the Bay. Though the line has attracted relatively good ridership – around 8,000 a day is pretty good for an airport station – transit planners expected far higher use, enough to allow the line to pay for itself. That simply has not happened, and probably never will. Transit rarely, if ever, makes money, so transit agencies should stop designing projects with the expectation that they somehow will.

It is good, then, that BART to build a 3.2-mile light-rail line from Oakland’s Coliseum station to that city’s airport. The agency had planned a direct connection from the BART station, which is several miles away from the air terminals, which would have significantly reduced the travel time currently available on the agency’s “AirBART” shuttle buses. It would have cost $386 million.

BART had managed to find $256 million in public financing for the project – a surprise considering how much of a relative flop the San Francisco Airport extension had been. The agency thought it would be able to find an additional $130 million from private financiers, who supposedly would be able to make money from the line and therefore be willing to help out. But the most recent bid, from Merrill Lynch, fell through for obvious reasons. It looks like the agency may be reconsidering much cheaper and much more realistic rapid bus lanes. This is a reasonable and thoughtful decision. The $256 million already collected by the agency should go to better inner-city transit, where improvements are really needed and which would serve far more people.

Meanwhile, in the South Bay, transit folly over the extension of BART to San Jose continues. VTA, Santa Clara County’s transit provider, which currently runs poorly-used light rail lines, wanted to extend BART’s East Bay metro lines down to San Jose in a 16-mile extension. But November 4th’s incredibly close vote on Measure B, to increase the sales tax to pay for the extension, only garnered 66.52% of the vote, vs. the 66.67% needed. A very close result.

Instead of reconsidering whether or not extending BART actually makes the most sense, VTA”s leaders have decided to invest its more limited Measure A funds (which were approved in 2000) to a 9-mile extension, which would not go to downtown San Jose, rather terminating near the Milpitas Great America Mall or a flea market nearby. This will allow no connection with Caltrain trains at San Jose’s Diridon Station. It will also serve very few major job and residential locations in spread-out Silicon Valley.

VTA suggests that the new plan would cost $4 billion, as compared to the $6.1 billion of the original plan, because tunnelling under San Jose would no longer be necessary. The result would be a reduction in the number of estimated travellers from the originally estimated (and likely highly inflated) 98,000 trips a day to 55,000. Compare this to New York City’s Second Avenue Subway, whose first phase will cost around $3.5 billion and which will attract more than 200,000 riders a day.

Though perhaps it is unfair to compare two projects, especially when one of them is in the biggest city in the country, one questions whether or not the federal government should spend $750 million on this project as VTA will ask in the next few months. Wouldn’t this money make a lot more sense on improving Caltrain service, which is not only faster, but which also has the potential to carry more people and which would serve downtown San Jose. If VTA’s intention is to densify downtown San Jose and make it the region’s twin urban core with San Francisco, it needs rail service. This new, more limited plan will do none of those things, and isn’t particularly suited to heavy rail service, which is better for urban stations, closely spaced and with high ridership.

Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade, leaders are planning to admit that their promises back in 2002 will not come true. That is, elected leaders there argued back then that the passage of a 1/2-cent sales tax increase would allow for the construction of almost 90 miles of new metro lines, which would also supposedly receive support from the federal government. In the last six years, almost all of the money has been devoted to covering the transit system’s operating expenses.

The current plans for Metro extension – titled “New Money for New Projects” – would have meant an East-West line that would have eventually served the airport, as well as increases in service to the North of the city. With the revenues coming in not nearly enough to pay for all this, it looks like few if any of these extensions will be happening in the near future.

Meanwhile, in High-Speed Rail news, Ontario and Quebec in Canada are now considering a high speed rail link from Windsor to Quebec City that would pass through the two metropolises of Toronto and Montreal. They would be connected in less than 2.5 hours and the link would cost $25 billion. Federal leaders see this investment as an important step to solidify the country’s economy in the face of economic crisis.

Immediate effects of the recession and reduced gas prices are being seen on Amtrak’s Acela and Northeast Regional trains, which saw a collective 5% drop in travellers last month as compared to last year. This is the first drop in Amtrak ridership in the Northeast Corridor in months. That said, overall Amtrak ridership went up by 4.4%, most notably aided by the 53% increase in ridership in the Charlotte-to-Raleigh, North Carolina corridor.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News speculates on what a Vice-President Biden will mean for Amtrak services in the future.

1 Comment | Leave a Reply »
  • Nathanael Nerode

    From what I’ve read, the VTA’s light rail isn’t exactly “poorly used”. The problem is actually misprovision of service — two-car trains running at 15-minute intervals even at the lowest-demand times of day. Some changes in scheduling and consist choice could increase the effectiveness of the system without losing riders, making it look much “better used”. It also appears that the lines were designed to be too slow on some key segments where they should have been moving commuters fast….

    Unfortunately “misprovision of service” describes the fanatical demands for BART extension as well. In San Jose they seem to be able to get the *locations* of the lines right, but when it comes to choice of technology, scheduling, and other sorts of planning, they’ve had some serious problems.

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