Will either CalTrain or BART extension survive?

Article published in May 1997

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While the proposed downtown San Francisco extension of CalTrain faces an icy political landscape and limited funding possibilities, BART's SFO/Millbrae extension is facing grim realities of its own. Despite dramatic differences between political status of these projects, both at the moment are fighting for their survival.

Map (24k GIF) of the two proposed extensions

The CalTrain extension, a top priority of Peninsula Rail 2000 for 15 years and key to revitalizing CalTrain, has long suffered from lack of political support. With the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) completed, it must now advance to preparation of a final EIR in order to stay afloat. Doubts over the funding scenario for its eventual construction cast a shadow over the prospect for this. The Joint Powers Board responsible for CalTrain is expected to render its decision on this on August 7.

PR2000 Director Jim Wheeler characterizes the struggle for the $1.7 billion BART extension as classic pork barrel politics. According to Wheeler, a project costing $12 per new rider is the maximum to be considered cost effective. BART estimates that its project will cost $26 per new rider. Wheeler believes that even this estimate is generous. He has believed for some time that the project would not stand up to scrutiny of the Republican-controlled Congress. And for the past two years, Congress has funded the project at levels less than half of BART's requests.

Final environmental documentation for the project was approved last year, and approval of a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA), final step before construction could begin, was expected earlier this year. However, many questions arose over the merits of the project and funding was halted by Senate Transportation Subcommittee Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) in on January 27 in response lobbying by airline representatives opposed to the use of airport funds and concerns raised by PR2000 and other groups.

BART's adoption of the longer, more expensive routing led to formation in 1995 of the Coalition for a One-Stop Terminal (COST), of which PR2000 is a member, and to the filing of a lawsuit by PR2000, COST, and Train Riders Association of California against BART last year. COST advocates a "one stop" terminal for the BART line west of Bayshore Freeway where CalTrain and future high-speed rail would also connect with the airport people mover to all airport facilities.

In a recent letter to supporters, COST Executive Director Bruce Balshone wrote, "COST has been in existence for two years, and the simple fact is that BART has been blocked from going forward during those two years." Wheeler likens the BART extension to a house of cards and speculates that the FFGA may never win approval.

To explain this view, Wheeler cites a combination of factors: a fiscally conservative Congress, a less influential Bay Area Congressional delegation, threatened species habitat adjacent to the airport in the path of the project, the existence of the more cost effective CalTrain already running between San Francisco and the edge of the airport via a shorter route, and ridership projections indicating that BART must lure nearly all riders north of Millbrae away from CalTrain to fill seats on its trains.

Additionally the proposal to route BART directly to airport passenger facilities east of the freeway instead of the "one-stop" proposal has opened up a political Pandora's Box. (See the article "Rail-SFO Connections in Political Tangle.") The "into the airport" proposal championed by State Senator Quentin Kopp has been opposed by the powerful airline lobby, while airport and BART officials have insisted that the airport cannot serve at the end-of-the-line station--hence the additional Millbrae station.

In letters to the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, San Francisco attorney James Haas and Belmont City Councilmember Pam Rianda contrast BART's failures to win support in Washington with its perpetually optimistic public relations message. "...All the Bay Area has gotten is a torrent of PR about how the project has to be frantically pushed through, right now..." Rianda wrote in February. Haas characterized BART officials as "mandarins downplaying problems and dismissing opponents."

Especially in dealings with neighborhood groups concerned about construction impact and with city officials along the extension route, BART's PR message has been a powerful weapon. City officials have been quoted in newspaper articles numerous times stressing they must face the "inevitable" and that opposing BART's march down the Peninsula would be fruitless. Lack of awareness of BART's troubles in Washington among Bay Area residents and officials also discourages awareness of CalTrain as an alternative, and marginalizes the views of CalTrain proponents.

"The EIR for the extension of CalTrain into downtown San Francisco shows that the CalTrain project will cost half as much as the BART-SFO-Millbrae project and get people to the airport from downtown twice as fast," says Jim Wheeler. PR2000 hopes that more officials will come around to this view as the BART project continues to stall in Washington. For this reason, Wheeler asserts that it is now essential for CalTrain proponents to persuade officials to fund a final EIR for the CalTrain project.

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Last updated: January 7, 1998

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