Rail-SFO Connections in Political Tangle

Article published in May 1997

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Plans to connect CalTrain directly to San Francisco International Airport's ART people mover system continue to stall due to a tenuous arrangement worked out for BART to build the SFO and Millbrae stations in its proposed extension. While officials from the airport, San Francisco, and other bodies have walked a tightrope to secure funding for the convoluted proposal, consideration of a direct CalTrain link has been put off.

On April 10, after weeks of tense negotiations, BART, the airport, and airline industry representatives signed an agreement allowing BART to build a station adjacent to the new international terminal now under construction, and for the airport and airlines cover $163 million of BART's construction costs. SFO airport is owned, operated, and administered by the City and County of San Francisco.

"BART to SFO" mostly for non-airport use

Along with the high cost of BART's project, the major issue that proves nearly intractable is that BART's project would primarily serve Peninsula commuters passing the airport on the way to other destinations, yet rely on airport funds for construction of a station within the airport. BART's ridership projections showed that only a small percentage of riders on the extension would be airport customers and employees, a rarely publicized fact (sources: 1991 MTC study and San Mateo Countywide Transportation Plan, March 1997, Exhibit 1.12).

The Air Transport Association, the airline industry lobbying group, opposed the excessive cost of the BART extension with its financial obligation from the airport because the airlines are the primary contributors to airport revenue. The airlines pay landing fees and rent for airport facilities. Landing fees would be increased under the BART plan. Federal law requires that airport revenue be used only on facilities for airport-related needs.

$200 million of airport funds had been specified in BART's funding plan, part of $1.7 billion total needed to build the eight-mile project from Colma. Under the newly approved agreement, $37 million of the $200 million would come from $2.5 million annual rent paid by BART on its airport station. BART officials and proponents of the extension were greatly dismayed by this requirement and protested, but eventually supported the deal out of fear of killing the project. $113 million would still come from airport revenue from the airlines.

The agreement reaffirms the airport's insistence on the inclusion of the Millbrae station to ensure that the station within the airport's facilities not serve as a transfer point for off-airport travel. Airport officials have expressed concern that if the internal airport station were the end of the line, BART passenger pick-up and drop-off traffic would clog airport roadways. The agreement states that the airport may terminate in the event of BART failing "to have the airport station and the Millbrae station operational by 1/1/2008, or BART's modification of the full funding grant agreement to delete the Millbrae station."

What about CalTrain?

In the Winter '97 issue of Staying on Track, we reported that the Airports Commission had failed to act on the recommendations of a study completed in April of last year on connecting CalTrain to the airport people mover because BART's plans were not finalized. Apparently this continues to be the case. "My guess is that the CalTrain link-up is viewed as threatening to the current BART/SFO plan, so nothing much will happen until BART/SFO things get stabilized," says PR2000 president Adrian Brandt.

Brandt believes that if the airport were to support the fast and free non-BART connection between CalTrain and the airport via the people mover--known as Airport Rail Transit, or ART--this would undermine the rationale for inclusion of the Millbrae station and the two miles of track connecting to it, estimated to account for $250 million of BART project costs. He contrasts this with $57 million, according to the study by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting, the cost to link CalTrain to SFO by extending the ART to a station on the CalTrain tracks.

Brandt explains that under the scheme that includes the Millbrae station, CalTrain riders would access the airport via a transfer to BART at Millbrae. Brandt notes that these additional short trips on BART account almost exclusively for higher ridership estimates on this BART alternative over one in which BART terminates at a station along the CalTrain tracks connected to the ART (termed the "one-stop" proposal by its proponents).

Map, 37k GIF, shows CalTrain and proposed routes of BART and ART at the airport. (The direct CalTrain link is labeled with a "5," because it was alternative 5 in the Nelson\Nygaard study.)

During many of the months in which the airport has stalled on considering the direct CalTrain link, airport staff indicated dissatisfaction with ridership modeling findings for the CalTrain link. Adrian Brandt explains: "The study showed faster end-to-end travel times to all airport destinations [via the direct CalTrain link]."

Brandt refers to figure 5-3 of the study in which the direct link is faster by 7 to 15 minutes between all combinations of CalTrain destinations north and south of the airport and two facilities within the airport. "Everyone except the airport seemed to feel the study assumption that people would ... use the faster mode was reasonable. Questioning this ... common-sensical assumption seemed like a strong indication of airport stalling and antagonism toward the whole idea."

New model slows down CalTrain link

Upon the airport's request, new ridership modeling by Korve Engineering (the firm that has conducted ridership modeling for the City/County Association of Governments in San Mateo County) was presented recently. These show more riders on the BART-to-airport transfer from CalTrain and fewer using the direct link. Brandt notes, "The new ... study decreased the travel time for the Millbrae-SFO BART shuttle and increased the travel time for the CalTrain-SFO people mover connection.... Interestingly, ...[the people mover connection to CalTrain according to this study] creates less new transit trips since it steals most of its ridership from the Millbrae BART connection.... There is some question as to whether [this] study took into account that the people mover connection to CalTrain will be free to ride, while the SFO BART shuttle at Millbrae may very well not be free to ride."

"What people like Willie Brown and Senator Kopp and BART think and want have a lot do with shaping the Airport Commission and staff's position on issues," Brandt adds.

No compromise on Millbrae?

In an op-ed article in the San Francisco Examiner dated April 11, James Haas suggested that because elimination of the Millbrae station would decrease overall capital and operating costs, it would diminish financial burdens on the airport, BART and local governments. Thus, Haas reasoned, this could ease terms of the airport-BART agreement and reduce the risk of the extension being only partially built.

In view of uncertainties about the willingness of Congress to approve a full funding grant agreement for the BART extension, elimination of the Millbrae portion of the extension is now a strong possibility. This event would radically alter the airport's agreement with BART and perhaps its willingness to provide a direct link to CalTrain. The airport would be forced to choose between housing the end-of-line BART station or restoring the BART terminus to its originally proposed location along the CalTrain tracks.

Because officials of the airport, San Francisco and BART have been counting on keeping Millbrae in the project, giving it pre-eminence in the entire rail-SFO scheme, no one can accurately predict the outcome of its elimination.

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Last updated: January 7, 1998

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