Expanding Transit Sustainably

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in News

Published on July 26, 2009 with 2 Comments

BART Director Tom Radulovich
Photo by Luke Thomas

By Tom Radulovich

July 27, 2009

Effective and efficient public transit is a key to making cities more livable and sustainable. Cities around the world are building, and in many cases rebuilding, rail transit networks. The Bay Area is no exception; cities, counties, and the region (through its Metropolitan Transportation Commission, MTC) have invested billions to build and expand rail transit throughout the Bay Area.

The Bay Area has done an impressive job building an increasingly connected rail transit network for the region. Yet the regional network is plagued with recurring problems – transit projects that over-promise and under-deliver, capacity problems at the region’s core, boom-and-bust maintenance and reinvestment cycles which compromise performance and safety, and funding priorities that favor new extensions over operating, maintenance, and reinvestment of existing transit.

Our best guess about the current state of our rail network and its future prospects, contained in MTC’s 2009 Regional Transportation Plan, shows a system in crisis. MTC projects that BART’s capital reinvestment needs over the next 25 years are less than half funded, with an $8 billion shortfall. The planned extensions to the BART system – Warm Springs, eBART, and the Oakland Airport Connector – are all anticipated to operate at a loss, and all will draw from BART’s overtapped operating budget for their operating and capital costs. These extension projects contribute nothing to expanding BART’s core system capacity, which, before the current economic downturn, was becoming acutely constrained.

San Francisco’s Municipal Railway (Muni), which operates the region’s second-most-used rail network (Muni has almost twice BART’s ridership, but mostly on its extensive bus network) is facing similar problems. Its light rail system is aging, overcrowded, unreliable, and saw a serious light rail collision on July 18 which injured dozens. Yet the RTP forecasts that over a third of Muni’s essential capital reinvestment needs over the next 25 years will remain unfunded, with little or nothing available for adding capacity or increasing safety and performance. Meanwhile, Muni has diverted tens of millions of dollars in capital funding at its discretion towards its $1.4 billion Central Subway project.

The Bay Area’s unsustainable transit expansion practices are not new. The region had an extensive rail transit network in the first half of the 20th Century, much of which was dismantled or allowed to fall into ruin after World War 2. As streetcar and commuter rail lines were being dismantled and abandoned, residents of three Bay Area counties voted in 1962 to build the BART system.

The initial BART system massively over-promised and under-delivered. The 1962 study projected that, by 1976, BART would have 258,496 riders on an average weekday, and operate at a surplus of $11 million/year. In 1976, the system carried only 131,370 riders on an average weekday – 51% of the projected total – and instead of running a surplus, required $40 million in operating subsidy. BART did not reach its 1962 projection of average weekday ridership in 1976 for another two decades. BART has never operated at the surpluses it initially projected, although its farebox recovery ratio (the percentage of a system’s operating budget that comes from fares) has nearly doubled, from less than 35% in the mid-70’s to almost 62% in the 2008-9 fiscal year.

Over the past 20 years, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has been engaged in a complicated scheme to dramatically expand the region’s rail network. The rail expansion plan, like the original BART plan, over-promised and under-delivered.

The Regional Transit Expansion Plan, adopted by MTC as Resolution 1876 in 1988 and updated as Resolution 3434 in 2001, focused largely on BART expansion. The plan relies on a complex financial scheme involving federal, state, and county funds. The linchpin was BART’s extension to San Francisco International Airport (SFO); this project, originally costed at $1.05 billion, received $750 million in Federal funding, and the  the balance was to come largely from San Mateo County’s transportation sales tax. San Mateo County contributed another $200 million to help build two BART extensions in the East Bay, to Pittsburg-Bay Point and Dublin-Pleasanton. Once it opened, the SFO Extension was to draw another $146 million from projected operating profits to help build a third East Bay extension, to Warm Springs in Fremont.

The regional rail plan delivered three BART extensions, and construction of the Warm Springs Extension is about to begin. The financial arrangements, however, began to unravel in the 1990s, as the cost of the SFO extension project ballooned to $1.7 billion. The extension, which opened in 2003, has not generated the millions in operating profits originally projected; it has operated at a loss since opening day.

MTC’s plans also failed to take into account the needs of the existing system. As systems age, they require life-cycle investments in repair and replacement to keep them operating. Growing ridership makes additional demands on these systems too – more railcars, additional capacity at stations, larger shops and maintenance yards, expanded access to stations.

It is time to recognize the current crisis, and put the region’s rail network on a sustainable course. The experience of the past two decades offers several lessons about how to expand the region’s rail network sustainably. The goal is not to stop expansion of the region’s rail network – continued effective expansion is essential to completing an integrated regional rail network – but rather to expand in a way that sustains the safety and financial soundness of these systems.

  • Choose the right project for the corridor. BART has historically been a one-trick pony, offering up expensive BART extensions as the solution to every demand for better transit service. BART technology offers many advantages, but is extremely costly – as much as $150-200 million per mile. BART policy now supports expanding its transit offerings to include other types of rail (light rail, commuter rail, DMU/EMU), but unfortunately BART ‘grandfathered in’ some of its long-planned extensions, even though they don’t make much transit planning sense. The recent case of the Oakland Airport Connector project shows how BART still tends to err towards high-cost projects that don’t offer substantially better service than lower-cost alternatives. Effectively balancing the considerations involved in choosing the right project for a given corridor – capital cost, lifecycle operating and maintenance costs, future capacity needs, rider benefits, right-of-way, system connectivity and interoperability, environmental and land use benefits, access, etc. – is a complex art, and the proper subject for one or more essays. Our region’s process for developing and prioritizing projects is more politically driven than policy driven, and lacks rigor and strategic thinking.
  • Expand urban core service and access. Since the completion of the original, three-county BART system in 1973, BART’s management and directors have sought to expand BART further out into the suburban Bay Area, and have paid little attention to the region’s urban core. But it is the dense, mixed-use urban core communities which can be served most effectively by heavy rail metros like BART. Improving access to existing stations by improving walking, cycling, and local transit connections, changing land use to foster denser, mixed-use ‘transit villages’ around existing stations, and adding stations between stations (in places like 30th Street in San Francisco, 14th Avenue/San Antonio in Oakland, and Solano Avenue in Albany) are more cost effective ways of adding new riders than extending into low-density suburban areas. Yet these strategies receive scant attention from BART’s leadership, and receive little regional funding compared to less effective suburban extensions.
  • Preserve existing service. A transit agency must demonstrate it can meet the operating and maintenance needs of the extension without compromising service to current riders, or burdening them with the additional cost. There is no public value in opening shiny new extensions while driving away existing riders with higher fares and diminished service.
  • Cover core system impacts. An extension’s funding plan should cover both the full cost of the extension, and the core-system impacts of the extension (vehicles, maintenance facilities, capacity needs, etc.) For decades, BART was able to rely upon the surplus capacity built into its lines and stations, and its spare railcars, to absorb additional riders, so that adding extensions off the ends of the system didn’t create capacity problems in the core. That ended a decade ago or more, and every extension must now include core system investments to accommodate the new riders.
  • Plan for life-cycle costs. Operating surpluses from extensions should go first to making sure that core-system operating needs and lifecycle capital needs of the extension and core system are covered, before going to build additional extensions. The SFO Extension’s vast pyramid scheme, which has, and will continue to, draw millions of BART fare revenue and San Mateo County funding towards East Bay extensions while making capacity and capital demands on an overtaxed core system, is demonstrably unsustainable.
  • Plan using scenarios. In an increasingly unpredictable world, projects must be robust and resilient, and serve the needs of riders in a range of plausible futures. Transit expansion projects are often sold to policymakers using plans and forecasts favorable to the desired project. The SFO extension’s ridership, funding, and cost projections, for example, assumed high economic growth, robust growth in air travel, low construction costs, and unprecedented changes in observed travel behavior (assuming, for example, that 90% of northbound Caltrain riders bound for San Francisco would transfer to BART at Millbrae, even though it involved longer wait time, longer travel time, and a higher cost). The stars didn’t align precisely as BART forecast, and the project encountered huge cost increases and big operating losses. Smart transportation project planning must examine how the project fares under different plausible future scenarios – high and low economic growth rates, varying prices for energy and materials, changing real estate and financial markets, etc.

Tom Radulovich lives in San Francisco where he serves as an elected Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District. He has served on the Board for almost 12 years. He also runs a nonprofit called Livable City, which is working to make San Francisco more livable, sustainable, and equitable. 


Comments for Expanding Transit Sustainably are now closed.

  1. The Bay Area simply does not have the transit investment that is reliable, robust and rapid enough to lure commuters out of their cars.

    Imagine a ten year job history of dwellers in condos at Market and Van Ness and the commutes that would require. In some cases, the transit network might work.

    But in most cases of job centers in the periphery, the combination of added commute time due to multiple transfers will at some point turn transit commutes into auto commutes.

    Rob Anderson is correct on this point: if you build luxury condos residents will bring their autos and it will clog adjacent streets and snarl Muni.

    But there is no investment scenario on the horizon that is of the order of magnitude required to address this problem.

    Whether it is the governmental authorities which are dedicating gobs of funding to the most politically lucrative but least necessary capital projects, or advocates who are so stung by those abuses that they can’t think big and support only soft, capital lite projects, we’re not moving a transit system agenda forward that can handle the loads we’re trying to place on it. And in that case, the load just spreads elsewhere.

    The transit funding priorities and mechanisms are the problem, and has much to do with federal funding of transit construction which more often than not entails additional operations expenses funded by localities, either taxes or at the fare box.

    We need to completely decouple the dependence on fare box recovery and the inane, non-horizon metric of “first day ridership” from necessary signals as to whether a transit investment serves a significant ridership so that we can make transit attractive by price and by service corridors.

    This might well involve matching funds programs at both the state and federal levels so that transportation agencies can leverage local contributions to reduce the burden on the riders.

    And there needs to be seamless connections between systems and, almost as importantly and expensively, local service at both ends of commutes. Its been 20 years, but back when I worked in Belmont, I had to skateboard from CalTrain to the job site because the SamTrans local bus ran on the :30 while the train on the :00.

    The fact that the Bay Area has a better transit infrastructure than most other regions cannot obscure the fact that SOV commutes remain faster than transit for most commuters, and for a relatively affluent workforce, will continue to until the appropriate level of investment makes transit competitive.

    That should be axiomatic…


  2. Thanks for writing this Tom. And thanks for reposting it Luke. I’m glad that this piece is getting wider exposure.