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Officials Celebrate BART’s Shiny, Costly New Oakland Airport Connector

BART’s new Oakland Airport Connector at Coliseum Station. Photos: Melanie Curry

The ribbon was cut Friday on BART’s new $484 million Oakland Airport Connector, with a ceremony complete with the requisite speeches, live music, and even a raffle. Free rides were given to everyone who came.

The new cable-propelled system is elegant, clean, quiet, and relatively quick. But it’s also a shining example of how BART can misplace its funding priorities by building a new flyover train to serve relatively few passengers while neglecting — and increasing — the maintenance costs of the starved larger rail network, as transit advocates argued throughout the years it took to plan and build the OAC. Its $6 fare will leave everyday BART riders paying for the lion’s share of its operating costs of $18 to $21 per trip.

“Despite the obvious needs, BART has gone forward with seemingly thoughtless projects like the airport connector,” Joél Ramos, TransForm’s regional planning director. “I use the word ‘thoughtless’ because they didn’t give alternatives fair consideration. BART never seriously considered a system integrating dedicated bus lanes, something we know to be efficient and reliable.”

The $6 train trip from the Coliseum BART station to the airport costs twice the fare of the now-defunct AirBART bus, and almost three times the fare of AC Transit’s 73 bus route (an underpublicized airport connection). And it doesn’t include the fare to anywhere else on BART.

The OAC travels at a sedate 30 mph, taking about eight minutes to get from the Coliseum BART station to the Oakland airport, including a pause in the middle to switch cables. That stop seems long enough to take on passengers, but there’s no station there — just the green corrugated-iron wall of the cable wheelhouse. The lack of a station is just one of the train’s many missed opportunities.

Meanwhile, BART’s everyday riding experience is in decline, belying its image as a state-of-the-art rail system: Trains are overcrowded at peak hours, doors sometimes won’t open, lights won’t work, and other equipment failures lead to increasing tube-clogging delays.

At Friday’s celebratory ceremony, however, little mention was made of the downsides of diverting resources to the OAC at the expense of the larger system. Officials made speeches focusing on benefits like fewer car trips to the airport, an easier way for travelers to get to San Francisco, and increased transit service for the development planned around Coliseum BART Station.

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VTA Cuts Alum Rock and Santa Clara BART Stations From Funding Plans

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Five Wounds Urban Village, which would redevelop an industrial site with new housing, office, and retail space around a new Alum Rock BART Station. Image: Taeker Planning & Design

Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) officials announced on October 6 that they would not seek federal funds in 2015 to construct Alum Rock and Santa Clara BART stations planned as part of the transit system’s extension through downtown San Jose. The move sparked an outcry from neighborhood leaders and elected officials, who have worked in community planning efforts for over a decade to anchor new compact, walkable urban centers with the transit stations.

A $2.3 billion, 10-mile extension of BART to Berryessa in northeast San Jose, from its current terminus in Fremont, is currently under construction and scheduled to open in late 2017. Another $4.7 billion is needed for an extension from Berryessa to Santa Clara’s Caltrain Station, through downtown San Jose, which had earlier been slated to have four stations. VTA planners say the extension would get a better chance of winning a $1.1 billion New Starts construction grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) by cutting the $1.3 billion cost of the Alum Rock and Santa Clara stations from the grant application.

“This is a radical change from what we understood from VTA for the last nearly-15 years,” said Terry Christensen, the Friends of Five Wounds Trail’s executive director and long-time resident of the Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace neighborhood. VTA first proposed the Alum Rock station for that neighborhood in 2001.

The locations of future BART stations planned for the rail transit system’s extension to Santa Clara, through downtown San Jose. Image: Valley Transportation Authority

While FTA’s policy guide for scoring New Starts transit projects requires that funded projects ”be supported by an acceptable degree of local financial commitment, including evidence of stable and dependable financing sources,” cutting the two stations still leaves the BART extension $1.7 billion short of its construction budget. Cutting the stations also hurts the project’s ratings on other factors FTA scores on: mobility improvements, particularly for car-free households; economic development effects, or the likelihood of attracting transit-supportive development;, environmental benefits like reduced vehicle miles traveled; and congestion relief.

VTA is now pursuing a “phased station implementation”, first constructing BART stations only at Diridon and Downtown by 2025, and later adding the Alum Rock and Santa Clara stations when an additional $1.3 billion for their construction somehow becomes available. VTA planners are also proposing to relocate the proposed Alum Rock Station, if and when it is ever built, to Santa Clara and 23rd streets to trim another $165 million in tunneling costs from the project.

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Watch BART Board Candidates Nick Josefowitz and James Fang Debate

The race is on for the BART Board of Directors seat representing District 8, which wraps around northern, western, and southern San Francisco. Twenty-four year incumbent James Fang faces a challenge in the November election from Nick Josefowitz, and the two debated for the first time at last week’s meeting of the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People. The video of the debate above was provided by the Josefowitz campaign.

BART District 8 is shown in orange on the left. Image: BART

BART District 8 is shown in orange on the left. Image: BART

Josefowitz, a solar power tech entrepreneur and a London-raised newcomer to SF, could be a serious contender to defeat Fang, the BART Board’s longest-running member and the only elected Republican in SF.

Josefowitz’s attacks against Fang include the fact that he is a Republican, and his record on keeping BART escalators and elevators clean and running (or not). Josefowitz has also pointed to Fang’s role in the poorly managed labor negotiations last year that culminated with a strike. Fang defended his record: the BART extension to SFO, a doubling of BART’s ridership, and consistent budget surpluses since he joined the board in 1990.

Fang, a Sunset District native, is the president of the magazine Asian Week and former owner of the SF Examiner. He continues to push his vision for “BART to the beach,” an extension through the Richmond District under either Geary Boulevard or Fulton Street (see the 22:00 mark).

Josefowitz’s platform includes a push to develop BART station parking lots into housing (5:30 and 10:00). Fang insists that BART does have such plans at all stations except Orinda and Walnut Creek (7:20), but that many residents don’t want the development.

Check out the video to see Fang and Josefowitz discuss other topics, like crackdowns on people sitting in stations (8:30) and BART workers’ right to strike (12:00).

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Costly New Parking Garages Still Gobbling Up Land at BART Stations

Oakland and BART officials cut the ribbon Monday on a new parking garage for a “transit village” being built at MacArthur Station. Photo: BRIDGE Housing/Twitter

BART continues to encourage the construction of multi-story parking garages at its stations, despite the exorbitant costs and lost potential for valuable land that could be put to better use.

On Monday, Oakland and BART officials held a press conference and ribbon-cutting ceremony to tout the opening of a 481-space parking structure at MacArthur BART station. The structure was built at a cost of $15,371,000, or about $32,000 per space (based on a 2012 figure), and is part of a “transit village” housing and retail development. But like most park-and-ride fortresses, it will mostly sit empty when commuters aren’t using it to store cars, which is most of the time.

The only media coverage of the MacArthur press conference was a San Jose Mercury News photo slideshow showing Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, two BART board members, an Oakland council member, and a developer rep cutting the ribbon, before heading up to the empty rooftop to take in the views.

Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich, who sits on the BART board, said he’s “appalled that we wasted tens of millions of dollars building a commuter garage at an urban station like MacArthur.”

“Ridership kept growing at that station despite the reduction in parking during construction, which demonstrates that we could have done perfectly well without it,” he said. “Many of our highest-ridership stations — Balboa Park, Berkeley, 19th, 16th, 24th, Glen Park — have little or no commuter parking. At stations like MacArthur, Ashby, West Oakland, and Lake Merritt, we should be phasing out parking as we build transit villages, and enhance walking, cycling, and local transit access instead of building structured parking.”

Only 10 percent of people using MacArthur station drive there, the Mercury News reported in 2011, and five shuttles operate in the station area.

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Avalos Ready to Champion Freeway Ramp Closures at Balboa Park Station

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The 280 freeway on-ramp at Geneva Avenue next to Balboa Park Station would be removed under the recommendations of an SFCTA study. Photo: SFCTA

Balboa Park Station could become a safer transit hub by 2020 if the city moves forward with proposals to close one freeway ramp and re-align another, as recommended in a study recently completed by the SF County Transportation Authority. Although the proposal hasn’t received much public attention, it’s sure to face a tough political fight when it’s eventually implemented, said D11 Supervisor John Avalos, who chairs the SFCTA. Avalos said the project is worth implementing, and he’s eager to champion the plans as soon as they can move forward.

Supervisor John Avalos. Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

“It’s a political problem how to implement these changes around the station. People want things to be different, but they don’t want any change,” said Avalos. “The trade-offs, they see as really harmful to the neighborhoods.”

The SFCTA study proposes altering freeway ramps, changing traffic signals, and a new frontage road for loading — changes that were vetted by the Balboa Park Community Advisory Committee. The study notes, “With strong support, consensus, and high priority from the community, agencies, and elected officials, the initial pilot projects could begin in 2016, with full implementation by 2020.”

Avalos’s term in office will end in late 2016, but he said he hopes to help move the freeway ramp changes forward before he leaves. ”I have two-and-a-half years of office left, and I want to be part of actually getting some implementation on these changes,” he said.

The goal of the SFCTA study was to find ways to make the streets safer around Balboa Park Station, which is surrounded by car traffic moving to and from six nearby freeway ramps. Even though 24,000 people use the station daily to ride Muni and BART — it’s BART’s busiest station outside of downtown SF — it seems to be designed as an afterthought to the 280 freeway. Many commuters exiting the station walk or bike to City College’s main campus.

“The neighborhood has long suffered from its cluster of poorly-designed freeway on- and off-ramps,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich, a member of the BART Board of Directors. ”We finally have a definite and buildable proposal for the freeway ramps that will reduce the burden that they impose.”

Through the study, planners and CAC members explored several options for re-configuring the freeway ramps. The favored option would remove one of the two northbound on-ramps, at Geneva Avenue. A curved southbound off-ramp that slings cars onto westbound Ocean Avenue would also be removed and replaced by a new ramp that approaches the street at a head-on 90-degree angle. That new intersection would be signalized.

This proposal originally called for closing the second off-ramp that touches down at Geneva, but that idea was dropped.

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Berkeley Bike Station Contract Extended — For Now

Downtown Berkeley Bike Station in the Shattuck Hotel Building

Downtown Berkeley Bike Station on Shattuck Street

Buried in Tuesday evening’s Berkeley City Council agenda was a resolution to extend the contract on the Downtown Berkeley Bike Station for one more year, at its current terms.

The station moved to its current street-level storefront location in the historic Shattuck Hotel building in 2010 after extensive renovations to the former retail space, and this month is coming up on the end of the five-year initial lease agreement between BART, the City of Berkeley, and the building owners.

According to the city, the contract extension is necessary because “the property manager and BART have not been successful in negotiating a renewal of the lease at or near the current lease rate,” which is considerably lower than the current market rate for retail spaces in downtown.

The current Bike Station was designed and constructed with funding from BART and the city of Berkeley, and the two entities continue to split the costs of operating the service. BART contributes around $130,000 per year for operations, staffing, utilities, and some rent, and the city of Berkeley pays $60,000 a year for rent.

BART has already signed the contract extension with the property owners at the original terms, and the city council approved the contract as part of its consent calendar Tuesday evening.

Also approved at the meeting was a request to apply for funding to expand the Bay Area Bike Share into the East Bay.

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San Jose Approves Diridon Plan, With Creek Restoration and Reduced Traffic

The Diridon Station Area Plan proposes a complete network of linear parks featuring the Los Gatos Creek and Guadalupe River. Image: City of San Jose

On Tuesday evening, the San Jose City Council finally approved the Diridon Station Area Plan. The final plan retains a creek trail restoration project that had been on the chopping block, while strengthening requirements for SAP Center to help reduce demand for driving to the arena and Diridon Caltrain Station.

After transportation and housing advocates complained that the San Jose City Council wasn’t planning to allow public comment during their final review of the plan, Mayor Chuck Reed agreed to hear from the public one last time, before finalizing and approving the 30-year land use and development plan for everything within walking distance of the City’s downtown rail station.

At the City Council’s preliminary review of the plan on May 20, several residents spoke in favor of the recommendation by the Diridon Plan to “daylight” the Los Gatos Creek Trail, and extend the trail along the creek to connect with the Guadalupe River Trail, just north of Santa Clara Street. The creek currently flows through an enclosed culvert underneath Montgomery Street and Park Boulevard.

Despite this public feedback, and support for the project within the draft Diridon Station Area Plan, city officials instead proposed on June 6 to eliminate the restoration of the creek from the plan’s recommendations, saying that “acquiring the land would be extremely costly… and the bridge structures [of the streets above the creek] would still shadow much of the creek”.

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Clipper Card Upgrade Could Bring Seamless Regional Travel, Or Not

Transit riders can transfer between BART, Caltrain, and SamTrans bus services at the Millbrae Transit Center, but riders must pay each transit agency’s full fare. Photo: BART

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will soon renew its contract for Clipper, the Bay Area’s “all-in-one transit card.” Transit advocates are urging MTC to use the opportunity to create a more seamless fare system, and remove barriers that could allow Clipper payments on both the region’s transit agencies and “first-and-last-mile” trip services.

Transit riders can currently use the Clipper card to pay fares on the Bay Area’s seven largest transit agencies (Muni, BART, AC Transit, VTA, Caltrain, SamTrans, Golden Gate) and the San Francisco Bay Ferry, and it’s set to include several other smaller transit agencies by 2016. While using a single card is certainly more convenient for customers whose trips take them across seemingly arbitrary transit agency service boundaries, it hasn’t made those trips faster or more affordable.

“Take the trip from U.C. Berkeley to Stanford: important destinations that are both inherently walkable places with daytime populations in the tens of thousands,” SPUR Transportation Policy Director Ratna Amin wrote in a blog post last week. “It’s logical to think they’d be linked by high-quality transit connections. But even during the morning rush hour, this trip takes nearly two hours.” It also costs $10.10, or about $400/month for a weekday commuter.

Clipper transit card reader

Clipper transit card reader. Photo: Dan Honda/San Jose Mercury News

“In other regions where transit works better, you don’t have to think about what brand of transit you’re taking or who operates it,” said Adina Levin, co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. “And you don’t pay a lot extra to take different brands.”

Even many shorter trips are either cost-prohibitive or time-prohibitive on transit. A one-way trip during rush hour between Daly City and Menlo Park, located 25 miles apart in San Mateo County, takes under an hour via BART and Caltrain, but costs $8.80. SamTrans’ ECR route is available for just $2, but takes about 2.5 hours. By car it takes just 45 minutes during rush hour, and for less than half the BART + Caltrain fare in gas money. Residents who can’t afford $17.60/day in transit fare and also can’t afford five hours of travel time drive instead for such trips, adding significantly to traffic congestion on the Bay Area’s highways.

“The Bay Area needs a regional transit fare policy… that doesn’t penalize customers who transfer between systems,” wrote Egon Terplan, SPUR’s regional planning director, as part of the urban think tank’s “Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit.”

One proposal by MTC that would at least reduce the transfer penalty is a standard 50-cent fare discount that transit riders would receive when transferring between transit agencies. Although such a small discount won’t boost transit ridership, it would at least remove one barrier to regional fare integration by making discounts the default type of fare agreement between transit agencies in the Bay Area. Another MTC proposal is to enable future Clipper cards to charge passengers daily and/or monthly fare maximums. This would be similar to existing daily and monthly passes, except that riders wouldn’t have to “commit” to any minimum number of trips, or even sign up to receive a discount for heavy transit use. This concept could be expanded to apply to trips between transit agencies, thus creating creating daily and monthly regional transit passes.

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Warriors Arena Moving to Mission Bay: A Win for Transit Accessibility?

Third and 16th Street, the new proposed site for the Warriors arena. Image: CBS-KPIX

The Warriors announced this week that the site for the basketball team’s proposed arena would be moved from Piers 30-32 on the Embarcadero to Mission Bay, quelling opposition from waterfront development foes. Whether or not the new site will work out for better or worse in terms of accessibility to regional transit, however, is still up for debate.

The Mission Bay site at 16th Street and Third Street is nearly two miles from the nearest BART Station, out of normal walking distance for most visitors. Instead, fans taking BART will be expected to transfer on Muni lines such as the T-Third on the Central Subway corridor, which will stop right out front, and possibly the 22-Fillmore, if extension plans for that line are constructed in time. The distance from BART may be a loss in the eyes of some transit advocates, but it does have its upsides, argues Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a BART Board member.

Ultimately, Radulovich thinks the Warriors are best off staying at the existing Oakland Coliseum, which is close to BART and the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, making it a more transit-accessible location than either of the proposed San Francisco sites. But the Mission Bay site does leave open more opportunities for nearby transit access than the Embarcadero piers, given all the transportation plans in the works for Mission Bay.

At the proposed Pier 30-32 site, the 0.7-mile walk from Embarcadero BART “was far enough from BART to dissuade many folks from walking,” said Radulovich. He pointed out that once the Central Subway opens in 2019, riders reaching BART via rail would rely on the N-Judah (which Giants Ballpark visitors already cram on to) and the future E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line, as the T-Third will no longer run on the Embarcadero. “Historic streetcars are expensive to operate, low capacity, and have accessibility challenges,” said Radulovich. Additionally, he said, “It would have added to the capacity problems at Embarcadero Station, which is currently the most crowded BART station.”

Furthermore, arena parking would be especially problematic by the Embarcadero. “The auto traffic that would have been generated by the hundreds of planned arena parking spaces would crowd streets like The Embarcadero and Second,” said Radulovich, “where we’d like to see the city reduce the roadway width to improve sidewalks and create protected cycle paths.”

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Eyes on the Street: BART Lets Station Agents Park Inside MacArthur Station

Think the inside of a transit station is a completely inappropriate place to store automobiles? BART begs to differ.

BART is officially allowing its station agents to store their personal cars inside MacArthur Station in Oakland. You can’t make this stuff up.

Daniel Diiullio tweeted two photos of cars parked right next to the agent booth and inside the bike parking area yesterday morning. When asked about these oddly-placed autos, BART spokesperson Luna Salaver said the agency is totally fine with it because some employee parking spaces have been removed by an adjacent housing construction project:

For this reason Station Agent parking is and will be a real problem there because of the ongoing work. As long as their designated parking spaces are obstructed and cannot be used, Station Agents will be allowed to park on the plaza (when they can safely do so). Their personal safety is the primary reason for this temporary parking situation. Because they are responsible for opening and closing the station in the wee hours of the morning, we want them to have safe access to their cars. We appreciate our customers’ understanding in this situation!

So there you have it — when reserved parking spots aren’t available, the only option is to put cars in the space for people and bikes. Problem solved.