BART Struggles to Balance Current Needs with Vision for Future

One of SPURs proposed alternatives is for standard-rail only. Image from: SPUR
One of SPURs proposed alternatives is for standard-rail only. Image from: SPUR

BART’s board and staff is working on a $3 billion bond that, if approved by the BART Board this summer, will appear on the November ballot. If the voters go for it, it will help fund upgrades and maintenance to existing infrastructure. Even though it’s primarily about maintenance and upgrades to existing tracks and tunnels, advocates are pushing to have $200 million of it earmarked towards more planning for a second Transbay crossing.

Either way, number one on the to-do list is replacing BART’s forty year old signaling system, explained Alicia Trost, a BART spokeswoman. “It’s the number one cause of delays,” she said. Right now, BART uses a fixed-block signal system, she explained–which means trains are kept from crashing into each other by making sure two trains never enter the same fixed length of tracks. Riders experience the downside of this old system when their trains stop in the Transbay tube for no apparent reason; the train is waiting until the train in front, which may actually be a safe distance away, has left the next segment of track.

Under the new train system, computers simply maintain a minimum distance between trains as they move, which will let “the new train cars run more frequently. Headways would be improved,” she said. There are also portions of the Market Street tunnel that are leaking water and need to be sealed. In addition, she said, 90 miles of rails would be replaced along with electrical power systems.

All necessary work, but this falls short of what advocates want to see. “We have a responsibility to plan for the future of the system,” said Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). And while she agrees there are immediate and pressing upgrades and repairs required for existing infrastructure, that shouldn’t supplant future planning. “You don’t abandon one and work on the other,” she said.

No argument there, but BART’s Board of Directors is already concerned about asking for too much with the bond, considering that it would cost some $13 billion to fund a second set of Transbay tubes. A poll done earlier this year shows that if they up the amount on the bond beyond about $4.5 billion, it starts to fail to reach the two-thirds voter threshold to pass. The bond will be paid back by a property tax that will come to roughly $45 a year per property owner, for the next three decades.

Additionally, the research shows that while people support the idea of a second set of tubes, they don’t give it a high priority. But there is something the BART board of directors can do to start the ball rolling. And this is what SPUR is advocating for with a white paper it released a few days ago.

“The staff proposal has a $200 million pot for long term planning–but there’s no commitment in there” to plan for a second set of tubes, said Amin. “It could be zero. It could be $200 million.” Advocates want that money committed to studying the tubes. And if a comprehensive study is done, the money will eventually come from Washington, they hope.

That said, this is hardly the first time advocates and BART officials themselves have argued for a second set of BART tubes. Nevertheless, “I think money from the bond can help make it more shovel ready, so when a new congress comes along that values big infra projects this will be ready to go,” said Jonathan Fearn, an advocate with “Connect Oakland,” a group that wants to remove I-980 from where it divides downtown Oakland and replace it with a surface level street, and a BART and Caltrain tube underneath.

“The Bay Area is an economic engine nationally. The federal government has to come in and help make the economy more resilient,” he said.

SPUR’s white paper, meanwhile, envisions several options, including one that wouldn’t carry BART’s current fleet of trains.

“We have to separate BART the technology from BART the system,” said Amin. Because BART is non-standard gauge, there may be a greater advantage, she explained, to building tubes that would connect up Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor, High Speed Rail and Caltrain across the Bay.

Electrification would allow speeds and train frequencies that would rival and exceed BART’s current fleet. Fearn, however, thinks if they are going to go through the expense of building a second crossing, it should have four tubes–two for BART and two for standard trains.

“If you’re making an investment that large, make it as accommodating as possible,” he said. “We saw how short-sighted we were with two tunnels when we built the original crossing; we don’t want to be that short sighted moving forward.”

Regardless, Amin and Fearn agree that the Bay Area economy is endangered by having only the one crossing. “It’s a risk to have no redundancy,” said Amin. “We have to keep planning it today. We don’t have to built it tomorrow. But we have to build consensus.”

  • Chris L.

    Hell, trains are already packed by the time they get to Oakland because of commuters from Pittsburg and Concord.

    Granted, there is a new train control system in the works that will allow more frequent trains, as well as a new fleet of trains on the way. But I can’t say if these two improvements will really solve the issue.

  • RichLL

    The flaw in that logic is obvious. Typically low-income and minority communities live in lower-lying flatlands. This is particularly stark in Oakland where the demographics east and west of 13 are stunning.

    And what is the cheapest and most effective right of way for a new rail system? Not through the hills, that’s for sure.

    So it’s a catch 22 situation. We are not allowed to build HSR along the most natural routes. It goes from being an engineering and finance issue to being a rigged exercize in social engineering and identity politics.

  • RichLL

    Or you could look at it the other way. The areas that had freeways built in the middle of the last century were less likely to be gentrified in the late part of the last century.

    If you put a freeway through a nice area and came back 50 years later, it may well be a bad neighborhood. And vice versa – just look at how Hayes Valley went up-market when the freeway was taken dow

  • jonobate

    That’s simply not how it happened. The areas that the freeways were built through were already low income/minority.

  • jonobate

    The cheapest and easiest rail route into SF is the one that’s being used for HSR – the Caltrain corridor. That happens to have a diverse mix of people along it, from low income people in northern San Mateo county to extremely wealthy people in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton.

    Nowhere does CEQA say that you can’t use natural corridors, or that you must build infrastructure through wealthy white neighborhoods. It’s says that if you have several equally viable routes, you can’t use race or income as a reason to pick one over another. That’s it.

    The reason that law is in place is because before CEQA infrastructure decisions were made that deliberately targeted low income and minority communities. Thanks the CEQA that’s no longer the case, although folks like p_chazz and yourself seem to wish that it was still possible to railroad the poorer communities in order to save the richer communities.

  • RichLL

    No, it’s not that I want to impose infrastructure based on race and economic status. But rather that I want the design decision based on topological and economic factors.

    What would drive me nuts is if the choice of routes were not all “equally viable” and we chose the more expensive and difficult route for purely ideological reasons.

  • DragonflyBeach

    – BART’s own Metro vision core capacity study indicates that out of all places for expansion from the new Transbay tube, if one were to be built, would be from Alameda, to SOMA, down Geary and 19th Ave.

    – Any news on a new bay crossing is a success, but lets not start handing out pictures of misleading corridors, if not downrigt silly routes. BART already indicated where, if they do another Bay crossing, where the routing should be. It was from 2007 to 2014 and it selected Geary as a finalist corridor.


    -Sure, but what’s the conventional rail? The East Bay doesn’t want, nor has anyone indicate a desire, for Caltrain to cross. Caltrain can’t even extend DTX, let alone cross. So when you say conventional, do you mean HSR? In which case, we’re talking about a system route well after 2030, if HSR even makes that deadline.



    -Geary’s bus ridership is around 50k. That would automatically go to BART, on top of likely doubling that ridership since BART is frequent and fast. BART within the Mission is very high in ridership, and preferred to Muni for this reason. A BART line down Geary would likely have greater ridership than any current BART expansion plan.

    And a BART line crossing down 19th ave from Geary would alleviate crowding on the N, L and M lines. As this map shows:

    Muni LRV’s would be running in traffic and be slow and disruptive compared to BART (see: T-Third Street). BART lines circling San Francisco would be a high-speed, heavy ridership alternative to Muni and driving, as it currently works very well in the Mission.

  • DragonflyBeach

    There’s no need for train storage with Geary, if the 19th ave routes are terminating at Colma.

  • Andy Chow

    But this is unfundable and unbuildable as a single phase project. The 2nd tube is monumental enough that it must serve downtown SF when it is done without anything else like tunneling out in the Sunset. According to the map above, the 2nd tube wouldn’t able to serve Transbay or the Financial District, so this alignment wouldn’t be effective in addressing crowding at the two busiest BART stations.

  • DragonflyBeach

    The tubes routing has to go through SOMA, and seems to be every conclusion from the study. Which case, Powell would be retrofitted. And we’re saying tube, but its likely to be a bored tunnel which makes it much cheaper than a giant cylinder. Tunneling today is rather cheap, its simply station building that makes it expensive. Judging by BART plans, stations are going to be similar to Mission stations.

    Its fund able through multi-county bond measures, which SF and Alameda would surely pass for new core extensions. Perhaps as a 2-part Phase project.

    And if Fremont/Dublin trains are being redirected into the new tube, that splits the outbound traffic right in half with Bay Point and Richmond remaining and allows for SF-only inbound traffic from the Mission (and then Geary) to keep Market st. access.

  • guenies

    There is something to be said for competitively compensated planners and engineers and technicians (electronics, signaling, track, rolling stock, etc). But I notice you avoid mentioning operators, many of whom are pulling in six figures despite there being a huge labor pool that could do their job with minimal training.

    The money that is spent on generously compensated train operators (especially in terms of healthcare and pension) goes far beyond what the market rate for their skills would be. That money would otherwise be available for increased frequencies, new rolling stock, deferred & proactive maintenance, and station upgrades – all things BART desperately needs.

    If you want to believe that BART is obligated to provide certain public transit workers (train operators, station agents, etc) with compensation and benefits far beyond what they would earn in the private sector, that is fine. But you have to acknowledge: that is funding could otherwise be spent on improving the system. The subway systems with the safest safety records in the world are all driverless. You have to acknowledge the fact that you are choosing better-compensated BART employees over the hundreds of thousands of riders who depend on BART and would benefit from more reliable, frequent, and safer service if train operators were eliminated (after the planned installation of platform doors and an upgraded signaling system capable of true driverless operation).

  • guenies

    Conventional means local, express, regional, and HSR trains. In other words, a lot more use than another Indian broad gauge, incompatible-with-anything-else BART tube would provide.

    And it’s amazing you know the East Bay’s opinion on a transportation idea that hasn’t ever been presented to the public outside of Yonah Freemark’s blog.

  • Andy Chow

    The problem with that is BART is collecting full fares for the regional rides, and then expect local bus agencies to provide more costly feeder service for BART riders without collecting their fair share. In other cities like New York, Boston, and Philly, regional and local services are under a single agency so this issue is partly internalized.

    And this also discourages ridership. A dollar or two on each feeder transit rides add up, and BART is not NYC Subway or even DC Metro, which cover their urban areas more extensively. Because each agency don’t want to lose their revenue, none of them are willing to compromise on a discount plan that makes feeder transit transfers convenient and affordable.

  • Chris L.

    I specifically said that I think some customer service positions are overpaid. Train operators are a customer service position. I’m not going to disagree with you there.

    Train operators at BART do have specific duties, though. They are there for when automated processes fail. They are not completely useless. Furthermore, their “six figure” income isn’t base pay, it’s the amount of overtime they’re expected to perform. The base pay amounts to a little over $50k/year, which in S.F./Oakland is barely enough to rent an apartment these days. Sad but true.

    Anyway, do things need adjustment? Certainly. There shouldn’t be a need to have so many overtime hours worked. And installing fully-automated systems would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which is an investment that would take decades to pay for itself vs. wages paid to operators. Furthermore, cutting overtime hours would mean there would have to be more T.O.’s hired.

    Finally, comparing a T.O. position to one in a private sector may not be the right thing. How many “private” subway systems are there in the U.S. and if they exist, to they pay their operators less? That’s something I don’t know.

  • I made that map myself to show what would happen if BART did continue out Geary. How I had it swing to get over to 19th was purely arbitrary.

    Both BART and Muni are considering rail along Geary, the current MTC core capacity study (and the SPUR white paper are more focused on downtown. Geary is a great candidate for here to extend the line next, as well as running BART down 19th to reach the existing station and yard in Colma, but it’s only one corridor being considered.

    BART under Geary will also create a similar problem as the Mission, even with frequent express BART service, the bus lines remain heavily ridden because they serve points in between. This could mean another Muni + BART situation like Market.

    Conventional rail means either high-speed or commuter train service like Caltrain.

    The East Bay is starting to take an active interested in more conventional rail and BART service, even the Mayor is getting behind a new BART line under 980 going to SF. That would also let San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor (and even long distance Amtrak lines) trains reach downtown SF.

    And as you noted, 19th Avenue Geary would alleviate crowding on the Metro lines it crosses, but it also does it in the best possible way: Take an N-Judah train heading inbound, getting more crowded as it goes. And then at 19th, a whole lot get for BART and the train is a lot less crowded when it gets to the next stop.

  • FDW

    Just to offer a counterpoint, I developed a slightly different version of the second tube, one that’s less duplicative with other projects. It goes like this:

    -The second tube is four tracks: 2 BART+2 Caltrain/HSR.

    -The second tube is four deep bored tubes.

    -The second tube lands at the foot of Howard St. With the Caltrain/HSR tracks above the BART tracks. The first station in San Francisco would be Transbay.

    -From there, The BART tracks would shift to a stacked configuration, diving under the Caltrain tracks and the Market St Subway.

    -After Montgomery, the BART tracks would shift under Post St, and there would be a non-revenue connection with the Market St. Subway.

    -Union Square would see the tracks shift over to Geary.

    From here the line does the obvious, and there’s a switch away from the stacked configuration around Gough.

    -Nothing really different happens until Masonic, where’s there’s no branching. Instead the line continues straight down Geary until 33rd Ave.

    -West of 33rd, the line curves into an alignment between 36th and 37th Avenues (Sunset), and continues straight south to Lake Merced Blvd.

    -The line then continues south on Lake Merced Blvd to Westlake Shopping Center.

    -South of Westlake, the line then curves east, meeting back up with the existing BART mainline at Colma.

  • DragonflyBeach

    – Ah, no wonder its kinda off. The BART map has a swing over connecting to Judah/19th.

    -The problem in the Mission is that there’s so few BART stations, if Geary was planned, it should accommodate express lines or have stations where 38R stops are. Muni and BART would of course work together, but only BART has the speed and rollingstock to get down Geary quickly. The last Muni line build was T-Third Street and its not known for speed. SFMTA seems more concerned about BRT down Geary which is only going 9 MPH.

    -If BART did the Metro vision routing, the buses wouldn’t be heavily ridden, with pockets of riders going only a few stops between BART stations. Most 38 traffic is easily tracked, unlike 24 Mission which serves BART stations to take riders where BART idiotically didnt build stations.

    For example, my old commute invovled taking 38 Geary to Divis. and transferring onto 24. Getting to Divis. took 27 minutes, maybe more. With BART, it would less than 7. That encourages more ridership, especially out in the Richmond district which is car-centric because people would rather drive than taking a bumpy, 40 min+ bus ride.

    -Most frequent bus service would be people using BART as a shortcut to the Westside. As oppose to spending 40 minutes getting their currently.

    -While I don’t think the East Bay cares enough for some bond measure helping Amtrak, my point is, if that map is showing a Caltrain extension, I don’t think East Bay commuters will care for it. BART is the East Bay’s Caltrain.

    -Of course, I love the 19th Ave. idea. Perfect. Most L and N riders from Outer Sunset would take it to Taraval/Judah BART station. People going North would take the train backwards to get to the BART station. The only ones taking Muni Metro into downtown on the L are those in Cole Valley towards Duboce, and those from Ulloa to West Portal. It might even be good to send a Muni line down Sunset or extend L to Lake Merced.

  • Dave

    Yes it is. Don’t use loaded terminology to try to confuse and scare the masses.

    As a specialty electrician, I’m damn sure you know how relatively easy the concepts are to understand. The hard part is when you are dealing with a complicated messy hodge podge of separate systems.

    I’m all for livable wages however I am definitely not an advocate of gross inefficiencies and mismanagement which almost always result from politicians directing projects without necessary expertise and foresight, not to mention poor decision making as a result of incompatible and often deceitful motivations.


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