BART-SFO: Wounded But Not Dead

Article published Spring 1996

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The plan to extend BART to SFO airport ultimately may not survive, despite unrelenting efforts on its behalf by some officials. In 1995, the San Mateo County Grand Jury investigated costs and benefits of this extension into San Mateo county and concluded that it would be in the best intrests of the county to immediately terminate its financial stake in the project and concentrate its efforts on upgrading CalTrain. San Mateo County Supervisor Mike Nevin and State Senator Quentin Kopp fired back at the grand jury's recommendations. The local congressional delegation also has remained among the strongest supporters of the extension.

BART to SFO critic Jim Wheeler believes that the $1+ billion, seven-mile extension's days are numbered. "The conservative Congress is carefully scrutinizing high-cost transit projects to determine how to best spend the limited federal dollars allocated for mass transit," says Wheeler. "BART has already used up $40 million to study the route between Colma and Tanforan and is presently using an additional $44 million to study the section between Tanforan and Millbrae. That's $84 million just for the study! ... the proposed BART-SFO project will not stand up to scrutiny, like that of the Grand Jury."

Millbrae Leg Axed Next?

Last year the project was scaled back when Congress stipulated, as part of a $10 million appropriation for engineering studies, that the extension must follow an aerial rather than underground alignment into the airport.

Critics of BART-SFO believe that Congress is likely to axe the Millbrae leg of the extension this year--assuming, of course, the extension receives any funding this time around. The currently favored BART-SFO extension alternative includes one stop shared with CalTrain at Millbrae, two miles south of SFO airport.

Critics charge that this approximately $200 million segment is unnecessary and duplicates the proposed connection of CalTrain to the airport light rail system (ALRS) currently under study, but at many times the cost. The BART line is planned to serve one station in the airport just west of the terminal cluster near the international terminal. The ALRS will serve all major worksites and terminals, operate 24 hours a day, and run twice to four times as often as BART.

Why Support BART to SFO?

Critics of the BART extension who see CalTrain as deserving of improvements such as the direct ALRS connection would like to see a change in political emphasis for transit. Even if the extension's odds of reaching construction phase are very slim, they believe that politicians may still consider it worth pursuing. No politician with high career ambitions wants to be blamed for losing the battle to fund it. If its present supporters remain in step, efforts to upgrade CalTrain and keep SamTrans bus service intact may not be sustainable. These transit modes lack the appeal of BART. Apparently as a result, they lack strong support from any major political players.

Pam Rianda, a Belmont City Council member and member of Coalition for a One-Stop Terminal (COST)--a group formed last year made up of local transit advocates and Peninsula city officials--agrees with the Grand Jury's findings and recommendations. "The funding scenario [for BART-SFO] has been, and remains, the stumbling block that will eventually halt the airport extension as planned. It may also destroy CalTrain and bankrupt SamTrans in the process."

Wheeler notes that Nevin provided no details to effectively refute this charge by the Grand Jury in his op-ed piece slamming the Grand Jury report. Instead, Nevin made statements such as "The grand jury's report can be summarized as a bewildering mess of glaring errors and factual misunderstandings."

Attacking the Messenger

According to an article appearing in the December 11, 1995 San Francisco Chronicle, State Senator Quentin Kopp, chief promoter of BART to SFO, wrote to the San Mateo County District Attorney asking for an investigation into the report's authenticity. In the letter, Kopp implicated former Belmont City Councilman Gary Orton, Wheeler, and CalTrain Citizens Advisory Committee chair Adrian Brandt as ghost-writers.

Wheeler characterizes Kopp's and Nevin's response to the report as "attacking the messenger." Nevin's column closed by expressing concern for the integrity of the grand jury system. With its rebuttal, SamTrans "simply reinforced the validity of the conclusions," asserts Rianda. "SamTrans management is giving the impression that it is trying to slip this over-priced project in through the back door."

"Kopp and Nevin are doing whatever it takes to salvage their pet project," says Wheeler. "Their political careers depend on BART going into SFO, regardless of the financial consequences for SamTrans. Why aren't they asking why SamTrans is giving BART $230 million for construction of East Bay extensions?"

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Last updated: October 27, 1998

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