» The project continues the suburban-oriented focus of BART regional rail, but at least it points the way towards serving a city center.
Somewhere in the learning curve about how best to take advantage of rapid transit technology, the San Francisco Bay Area took a wrong turn. Despite a long history of walkable, moderately scaled urbanism in many of the area’s cities epitomized by San Francisco, beginning in the 1960s planners and political leaders became obsessed with a different vision for how the place should look and work. The result was both the gradual effort to “Manhattanize” downtown San Francisco and the related push to speed people from far-away single-family homes to those new office towers via the particularly high-quality BART regional rail.
Regional efforts in recent years have pushed similar goals: There has been a renewed effort to solidify San Francisco as the West Coast’s New York City through the upzoning of central city land as the regional transit system is extended outward. BART has an extension south to Warm Springs under construction and a diesel multiple unit link planned into East Contra Costa County; north of the Bay, Sonoma and Marin Counties have set aside funding for a new commuter railroad. These projects are arguably overbuilt, serving far suburbs with transit funds that would be better used in the central city. But for a region in which money comes from taxpayers everywhere, it’s hard to justify BART in one place and just better buses elsewhere. Everyone wants the best.
Though this planning experiment had its beneficial effects — it kept the area’s central city healthy as other urban centers in the United States declined — it also reinforced a building pattern not so different from regions with no rapid transit system available at all, with suburban sprawl extending out in all directions.
Considering the region’s most recent decisions, that emphasis seems unlikely to change. The effort to spread regional transit service was advanced this week with the approval of a preferred corridor for an extension of BART to Livermore from an existing system terminus at Dublin/Pleasanton.
The project will bring urban rapid transit — a technology reserved typically for the densest downtown and apartment communities — to a (relatively small) city of 200,000 people. While most similar systems have stops every half to three quarters mile, this Livermore extension will have two new stations for 11 miles of new service. With average speeds along the route approaching 60 mph, and an estimated future daily ridership of 32,000, the line will in all appearances be a well-frequented intercity rail system. The problem, of course, is its estimated $3.8 billion price tag.
To summarize matters quickly, other options, such as improved bus lines or intercity rail, could provide similar or perhaps even better mobility improvements at a dramatically lower price. But they do not have the appeal of BART, so though they could be implemented more rapidly, there is little chance that they will be.
The approval of a preferred alignment in no way assures this project’s construction — the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which sets priorities for the use of federal funding for local projects, has set its sights on the southern extension of BART from the future station at Warm Springs to San Jose and Santa Clara. That’s a megaproject whose $5.9 billion cost is likely to consume the regional pocketbook for another fifteen years, leaving little room for rail to Livermore.
Even so, it’s striking that planning on this new route continues as if it should be one of the Bay Area’s top priorities. Despite the fact the both San Francisco and the close-in communities across the Bay have a number of corridors that demand a major improvement in transit service (Geary Boulevard highest among them), and in spite of crowding on the existing BART and Muni Metro systems, there has been no official endorsement of planning for new center city rail corridors, with the exception of the Central Subway project. But this problem results from a metropolitan political structure that enshrined the concept that investments should be spread across the region, no matter their relative benefits.
All that said, the choice of a preferred alignment for the Livermore project suggests a maturity of thinking in the minds of decision-makers in this part of California. The analysis of route options suggested that a number of routes extending east from Dublin/Pleasanton could attract about thirty thousand daily riders and improve trip times roughly similarly. But both the City of Livermore and the BART board endorsed the most expensive option, which would send trains from the existing route along I-580 to downtown Livermore using a tunnel under Portola Avenue and then connecting to an existing railroad corridor.
The decision to route the extension underground for a part of the journey (and even build a new subway station) added hundreds of millions to the project’s cost. But the choice to construct a station in downtown Livermore will allow for far more transit-oriented development than would have another route that remained along the highway, and it will encourage infill instead of greenfield projects. Cities must understand the direct land use effects of their transportation investments if they expect to take serious advantage of them, and the decision here is clearly in the right direction.
If leaders in the Bay Area and elsewhere are to continue investing in massively expensive and under-performing projects that serve the far suburbs, they are likely losing out on potentially more valuable spending. But if the projects are built well, such as is being proposed here for downtown Livermore, at least there can be some positive gain in terms of land use.
Image above: Section of map showing proposed alignments for BART to Livermore, from BART