» Effort to extend BART across the region continues, even as roadway expansions pursue their course.
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the nation’s case studies in regionalism, with one metropolitan planning board determining local transportation spending in cities from San Francisco in the west to Antioch in the east, from Richmond in the north to San Jose in the south. The existence of Metropolitan Transportation Commission, while theoretically designed to distribute resources to the most effective projects, has in fact erred in the opposite direction, prioritizing geographic equity over efficiency or high ridership.
The groundbreaking of the eBART line from Pittsburg to Antioch, in east Contra Costa County, is indicative of this trend that also includes the extension of BART to Livermore and San Jose. eBART would bring diesel multiple unit (DMU) train service from the existing BART Pittsburg/Bay Point Station to Hillcrest Avenue in Antioch, via a new station at Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg, providing customers new rapid transit service along 10 miles of track wedged into the median of Highway 4. The $462 million project is being built in conjunction with the expansion of that road from four lanes today to six and eight. Completion is expected by 2015.
10,100 daily riders are expected to use the line by 2030, up from 3,900 in its opening year. This is expected to relieve the current crowding at the Pittsburg/Bay Point terminus. Including a timed transfer between DMU and BART trains across a new platform, customers hoping to get from Antioch to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Station, the first in that city, will have a 68 minute ride. Thus the region’s ambitions for transit connectivity stretch far into the suburbs.
How worthwhile is this project? At a cost of less than $50 million a mile, it is relatively cheap compared to most recent rail programs; forty miles away, the 3.2-mile Oakland Airport Connector, for example, will be three times as expensive per mile. The choice of DMU technology rather than BART, which requires more infrastructure because it is electric, seems like a reasonable choice, since extending the latter would have likely come in at about $1 billion. The cross-platform transfer already works well across the BART system, so customers shouldn’t be much inconvenienced by the need to change modes in the middle of their ride. Moreover, the project offers the possibility of relieving the terrible traffic congestion along Highway 4.
It is clear, though, that the primary motivation behind the line’s construction is the need to serve a part of the region that has contributed to metropolitan transit funds for decades but has received no rapid transit in the process. Considering the need to maintain unity in political support for public transportation, extending rail out to areas that have low densities may be the reasonable course of affairs — even when investing the same amount of money in, say, a bus rapid transit line in center-city San Francisco would result in much higher ridership.
But the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s decision to coordinate investment in eBART even as Caltrans (the state department of transportation) expands the adjacent highway is counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Streetsblog San Francisco quotes Bijan Sartipi, a staffer for the agency, claiming that “We need major improvements to address the growth in East Contra Costa County… It will take a multi-modal approach, also being mindful of the environment and smaller carbon footprint.” While that sounds nice, unfortunately expanding highway capacity will increase car trips in the corridor substantially and limit the ability of eBART to compete effectively. In this part of the region, though, it may be politically infeasible to invest in transit without spending a corresponding amount on roads.
The project is intended to spur a great deal of transit-oriented development — massive parking lots to be initially constructed around the Antioch station are eventually planned to be replaced by a project that includes 650 to 2,500 residential units and 2.15 million square feet of commercial space. At the new Pittsburg Station, a similar amount of new construction is proposed. These aren’t drops in the bucket and they collectively reaffirm the Bay Area’s intent to push much of its new growth into areas near public transportation.
The questionable decision to limit new stations along the ten-mile line to just two, however, puts in question that goal. The majority of people using eBART will be driving to the stations. The corridor will encourage the growth of sprawling land far from the center of the region and make hour-long commutes standard among people living here. Is that the right way forward for the Bay Area?
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Image above: eBART alignment, from BART