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.”

  • SFnative74

    I agree we need to start studying a second BART/rail crossing asap. Congestion isn’t decreasing and costs don’t tend to go down with time, so why wait? All indications are that BART will soon be at capacity.

    As for the design, everyone is talking about a second set of tubes, but why not a rail-only bridge, similar to the Tilikum Bridge in Portland? It’s obviously much shorter than what we would need for a Bay crossing, but a simple viaduct design with a center span large enough to handle ship traffic could be cheaper to build than a tubd.

  • p_chazz

    There are environmental concerns if the bridge approaches are constructed in a wetland. Also, I would expect that while construction costs for a bridge would be lower, maintenance would be higher,

  • p_chazz

    What should have been done is to route the CalHSR up the East Bay instead of the Peninsula, and then build a tube to connect it with the Transbay Terminal. No sharing with Caltrain, no lawsuits by Peninsula NIMBYs, economic benefit for Oakland.

  • If the new section of the Bay Bridge is strong enough (and I realize
    that’s a big if at this point) we should focus on putting BART across
    the Bay Bridge instead of building another super expensive tube under
    the bay. After all, that’s how the Key System of yesteryear crossed the bay. No reason it couldn’t work today.

    Plus it opens up the possibility of having a Yerba Buena station which would be fantastic for the planned Treasure Island redevelopment.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Do we have a good understanding that signalling will actually increase capacity? Does BART have enough trains and operators, current or planned, to capitalize on reduced headway? How many new escalators would they have to put in at Montgomery to discharge all the passengers from more frequent BART arrivals? Moving people off the platform at rush hour is already a problem there.

  • Bruce

    The Key System streetcars were much lighter than even one BART car, let alone a 10-car train.

  • p_chazz

    Except the lightweight new span wasn’t built to carry the load of LRVs, let alone heavy rail.

  • Gezellig

    Speaking of Transbay crossings, I’m just curious–this may not be ideal for BART but has any serious train-on-ferry proposal ever been, well, floated (hah) for any type of rail (whether Caltrain or BART or Amtrak or CAHSR or SMART, etc.), either as an medium-term solution or even a permanent one?

    I’ve taken the train from Berlin to Copenhagen which does exactly this on the 19km (12mi) crossing from Germany to Denmark:

    For cost comparisons in 1997 operator Scandilines apparently paid €250mil to modernize ferry berths and to buy 4 modern ferries specialized for this usage:

    € 250mil ≈ $280mil. Assuming that’s ’97 dollars, that’d be ≈ $417mil today.

    Of course comparing lots of apples to oranges here anyway but that just gives a rough approximation of the kinds of costs involved. It’s definitely less than, say, $13bil for a new Transbay tube or the $10bil + cost of continuing SMART through Marin and over the Golden Gate (if that were even politically feasible/wise/widely desired, which it’s not), for example.

    In addition to saving actual transfer time (for example even when SMART comes to Larkspur it won’t be stopping right at the ferry’s front door but about 1/4-mile away across a very busy street and parking lot…perhaps a 15-min. walk, 10 at best), there’s also a psychological benefit to the hassle-free one-seat one-ride model encouraging on-the-fence transit riders in the first place.

    I can give the Richmond BART->Amtrak example. Though I regularly transfer between Amtrak and BART there and it’s theoretically easy on paper, it’s not always seamless:

    –> the trains are not really timed
    –> you must go down one flight of stairs, through the gangway then up another set of stairs. Some passengers with luggage find this difficult/slow. There are elevators but they’re very slow and/or out of service.
    –> if your Amtrak train is significantly late, you may actually arrive at Richmond after the last BART has left (this has happened to me). If your BART is late, you may very well miss your once-every-few-hours (or worse) Amtrak.

    As it turns out when I took that Berlin->Copenhagen train it was very significantly delayed for some reason but since it was a seamless trip onto a ferry there was no worry about missing connections or anything. It was as low-stress as a 3-hour delay can be.

    It is a medium-term solution for them, though. Apparently after some time there will eventually be a train tunnel, but for now the train+ferry model works pretty great.

  • murphstahoe

    Go to Oakland and say the hell to SF.

  • alberto rossi

    or here’s a crazy thought: let’s increase housing density and improve public transit within the city/on the peninsula

  • Andy Chow
  • david vartanoff

    Yes, upgrade the signalling; CTA was able to run trains more frequently than BART 60 years ago. Second, an ironclad requirement of the bond issue must be 24/7 service within a time certain. Third, of course a second Bay crossing. Fourth, at a minimum a third (fourth is better) between Bayfair and the portal to Lake Merritt. Fifth, an infill/short turn station between LM and Fruitvale. Sixth, As Muni has failed to buildany real Geary upgrades (BRT doesn’t count!) the new Bay crossing should go out Geary w/ a branch slung under the GG Bridge, and a route down the west side of SF to Daly City. The latter gives Marin and the west side of SF direct access to SFO/the Peninsula.

  • This probably works fine for intercity trains, but for what is a relatively frequent regional transit system, the time required would be a pretty big problem. Also, I’m not sure of the capacity, I suspect BART would run enough trains to require many ships and docks. It might work for the SMART train though, who knows.

  • Lol, lawsuits with East Bay NIMBYs? 😛 In my experience you cannot escape NIMBYs…although I suppose you can pick less wealthy ones. But that, historically, has its own problems, certainly not pretty ones.

  • Agreed! There are a lot of surface parking lots around transit stations which could be turned into housing above parking, or even turned into a whole transit village.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Answering my own question: this report has some discussion of how signalling improvements could concretely increase capacity, and mentions how many new cars are in fact to be deployed.

    On the other hand the same report shows overcrowding continuing to increase through 2017.

  • I think you’ll get an overwhelming “yes” on whether moving-block signaling will increase capacity and reduce headways.

    The idea is if you can run trains closer together that takes the place of adding trains and operators, because the same number of trains will be able to make trips from end-to-end in a day.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Hrmm. I’m not sure I follow. The way to increase capacity is to run more trains per hour. No matter what the headway might be, it will still take the same amount of time for a given train to run the line from end to end. Therefore won’t you need to put more trains on the track to increase trains per hour?

    E.g. if it takes an hour to run the line and the minimal headway is 3 minutes today and can be reduced to 2 minutes, the only way to capitalize on this is for a train to leave the terminal every 2 minutes. You now need 30 trains where before you had 20 trains.

    I guess I’m skeptical here because BART has so far failed to implement easier capacity improvements. For example I would point out that they are still running 8 and 9 car trains in the tube at peak hours. Why haven’t they gone to all 10-car trains? The report I linked to earlier in my other comment shows continuing mix of 8, 9 and 10-car trains through 2022 :-/

  • p_chazz

    Trackage in the East Bay is largely through semi-abandoned post industrial wastelands, not multi-million dollar homes.

  • My apologies, I left out something important: speed.

    Besides the unexpected stops, trains often slow down to avoid getting so close to the point it has to make a complete stop. With fixed-block signaling it doesn’t matter if the train is just a few seconds from exiting the block, there is no consideration for how close the trains actually are from each other, the next train just is not allowed to enter the block. Period.

    To make sure that doesn’t happen schedulers have to try and build in the padding needed keep that from happening.

    That’s either longer headways or run trains slower. And not the unexpected times where trains start going really slow, it’s a lower top speed to begin with because a lower top speed means a shorter stopping distance means blocks can be shorter. That’s where BART is at now, we’re not seeing what the trains are actually capable of except in the outskirts.

    Moving-block signaling means trains have more room to get closer. Which could be used to lower headways and you are exactly right that would require more trains and operators.

    Or that extra padding that had to be built in before could be used as the extra stopping distance needed to run trains at higher speeds between stations. The same headways, same number of trains, but now trains are getting from stop to stop faster and cutting down on the total runtime. There will be a tipping point somewhere that runtime get short enough that (even with extra layover time each trip needs) the same number of trains and operators can make more trips.

    That’s where the capacity (and a faster trip) comes from, unfortunately not from running longer trains.

  • jonobate

    Yeah, that’s kinda the problem.

    There were two main reasons the route you describe was rejected in the 2005 HSR Program Study. One was the cost of a second Transbay Tube, which HSR were not willing to pay for, given that there are much cheaper ways to access SF from the south and that connecting SF to Oakland is not one of their objectives. The other was because the route you propose would have disproportionate impacts on low income and minority communities due to elevated rail structures in East Oakland, which would leave the project open to legal challenges under CEQA.

  • SFnative74

    Caltrans was asked to make the east span strong enough for trains but they dismissed that idea using their great foresight that no one would ever want to replace a travel lane that handles 2000 vehicles per hour with a train line that could carry up to 30,000 passengers per hour per direction.

  • Sigh… once again Caltrans is the reason we can’t have nice things.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    How odd that aerial freeways throughout Oakland have never been opposed.

  • Jame

    The short answer is BART doesn’t have enough cars in good repair to run longer trains. The reason that continues through 2022, is because that is the timeline to get the new cars delivered and in production.

  • jonobate

    Most of those were build before CEQA was enacted in 1970; in fact, those freeways are a large part of the reason why CEQA was passed. But yes, there’s something of a double standard for sure.

  • RichLL

    270,000 vehicles use that bridge every day. Call that 400,000 people. That is a lot of votes against your “nice things”.

  • Funny how “votes” didn’t matter when the car companies conspired against streetcars including the one that used to cross that bridge…

  • DragonflyBeach

    That routing is so bad. If we’re going to propose a 2nd tube, it doesn’t need to be standard gauge. It really doesn’t. You’re not going to run, non-BART tech on BART rail, right? Thats just foolish. And no Geary line? Pssh, by far, probably the 2nd worst routing I’ve seen.

  • DragonflyBeach

    The Marin thing ain’t happening, unless its a combined extension with SMART which means BART would include SMART upgrades, which would force Sonoma to vote and therefore get it over the 66% needed for the bond.

    If so, Marin line should just go to Van Ness. Keep Geary/19th separate.

  • DragonflyBeach

    We don’t need BART anywhere near that bridge. Keep it underwater or make a BART bridge.

  • SFnative74

    Why duplicate the Caltrain route with BART rather than add a line? Have it go west under Geary and use the money for current above ground improvements for something else.

  • SFnative74

    There are 5 lanes in each direction. Each one carries 2000 vehicles per hour – let’s say 4000 people. A rail line could carry 30,000 people. That one line of rail could carry almost double the number of people than the remaining 4 travel lanes combined. We can cling onto the idea that all travel lanes are sacred and watch everything grind to a halt, or we can explore ideas that could actually work for a growing population.

  • RichLL

    Were the voters ever specifically asked whether they wanted trains or cars on the bridge?

  • RichLL

    You have to ask another question. How many of those 4,000 riders an hour conveniently start their journey at a putative Oakland rail station and convenient reach their destination at a downtown SF station?

    Isn’t the reality that most of those trips originate further out in the East Bay and end up in destinations beyond downtown SF?

    West Oakland to Montgomery and Market is easy. San Ramon to Pacifica, not so much.

    Oh, and the number I cited was 270,000 vehicles a day. That sounds like a lot more than 2,000 an hour, assuming much lower volumes at night.

  • sojourner_7

    “If the voters go for it,…” they might as well just pound their head on the pavement and obtain the same level of satisfaction. Hopefully the electorate is smart enough to wean BART off of the public dime. We’ve thrown obscene amounts of money at BART for decades, and have been rewarded by bloated management, mis-use of funds and a workforce that made the mistake of striking. This cake is baked…

  • Andy Chow

    Go under Geary? Would add cost and very difficult to phase in construction (need to connect with existing tracks to access train storage and yard on the west side). A Caltrain extension would allow use of TBT to provide downtown access and continue south.

    The idea is to put in a tube structure to support 4 tracks. Activate the Caltrain tracks first, and leave the 2 tracks for buses until the time when BART tunnel is done on the west side to connect to it. The incremental cost of building a large immersed tube is different than building another tunnel with a TBM. That’s why there are plenty of modern underwater tunnels that have combined highway + rail.

  • RichLL

    The bridge might not even be able to support its own weight!

    But is a LRV heavier than a fully laden truck? There are no weight restrictions on the Bay Bridge that I know of – just a restriction about flammable cargo.

    But the whole issue is moot anyway. The bridge is part of the interstate system and so is a federal matter and not a local matter.

  • p_chazz

    You’re forgetting that in addition to the weight of the LRV itself there’s also the weight of the track and the track bed in which it sits. That’s a substantial dead load that the bridge would be carrying.

  • Chris L.

    People will complain about BART yet 99+% don’t know the first thing about electrical/electronics, transit, and how incredibly complicated the system is.

    Sure, some of the customer service positions might be a little overpaid. But as far as technical positions, don’t you think that someone who spends years learning about this technology deserves a good living wage? As a specialty electrician, I appreciate the fact that most of the population takes these skills for granted. But dealing with high power, sequential logic, and automated systems is no cake walk. And the equipment involved is extremely expensive as well. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I really do feal that this can’t be done any cheaper without seriously affecting the lives of the employees, who really are humans like the rest of us and earn their pay.

    There will always be haters and I’m sure this is going to get me some negative replies, but I don’t know of a better way. I welcome any examples of a transit system in this country that does the same or more with the same or less funding.

  • Chris L.

    BART rails are actually a wider gauge than most freight trains. Additionally, the third rail adds another foot or so off to one side.

  • Chris L.

    Sorry, I misunderstood what you were going for. On another note, the “tube” actually is buried under the bay floor. I’m not a civil engineer, but I’m fairly certain that if it was easier/cheaper/safer to dig underground then that’s what would be done.

  • All good questions.

    – MTC is conducting a core capacity study which cuts off in downtown SF. The purpose of their study is finding the best way across the bay to Downtown SF, whether it goes any further out on Geary is a question for a little later. They still haven’t published their core capacity findings.

    – SPUR’s white paper is just that, a well researched outside analysis of the project possibilities and considerations intended in part to spur discussion. We can tick than one off as a success.

    – The second crossing most likely will be a deep bore under the bay. Tunnel boring technology has evolved since the Transbay Tube, and it will probably work out safer, easier, and cheaper.

    – In the case of BART and conventional rail it would be a four-track tunnel, there is no way to legally or physically put both on the same set of tracks.

    – What’s being suggested here is the bond meant to only fund improvements and maintenance to the existing system, set aside some money in that bond for studying the next steps.

    – There would be another bond/funding measure at some point in the future to pay for the second crossing project, whatever form it takes.

    – As Geary and 19th, the SFMTA is proposing light-rail service in it’s new expansion plan.

    I don’t see Geary ridership being so high it requires frequent 10-car trains, the stations would be very widely spaces, other drawbacks… but what about Muni Metro service up to four-cars long?


  • p_chazz

    So it’s wrong to have an impact on low income and minority communities but perfectly fine to have an impact on wealthy communities?

  • jonobate

    It’s wrong to impact low income and minority communities disproportionately more than other communities. That’s not just my view, it’s CEQA’s view.

  • p_chazz

    So what negative impact would Cal HSR have had and why would it be disproportionate? CEQA always seemed like nothing more than a vehicle for NIMBYs to shut down things they don’t like. It should be repealed.

  • jonobate

    Same impacts as the elevated BART tracks – noise, vibration, seizure of homes for right of way, division of communities, etc.

    Under CEQA, the HSR authority is required to select the “least environmentally damaging practical alternative”. Impact on low-income and minority communities is one of the criteria used to determine how environmentally damaging an alternative is. A “disproportionate impact” occurs when those communities get significantly more impacts than other (richer, whiter) communities.

    EIRs contain a whole chapter on this subject. For example:

    CEQA should be reformed, though probably not for the reasons you think it should be. But until it is reformed, HSR has to comply with the law as it stands.

  • gneiss

    They didn’t have Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM’s) when the original Transbay Tube was built. The new machines have radically altered the cost balance for bedrock tunneling vs. submerged tubes in underwater tunneling projects. Before TBM’s, bedrock tunneling was far more costly because it required drilling, blasting, and hand tools.

    During construction of the MWRA outfall tunnel in Massachusetts Bay I was a geologist consultant and spent a considerable number of months inside it. This project would have been much more expensive without a TBM and would have likely been constructed as a submerged tube instead.

  • RichLL

    BART recovers about 70% of its costs from riders. With Muni, it’s less than 25%. Ask me which I think is better run.

  • Ross P

    wouldn’t fix the issue of people living in oakland and commuting into the city, those trains are packed constantly now


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