No costly new extension for the over-extended BART system

Joël Ramos Headshot

silver line BRTUpdate 5/25: For the first time in its 40-year history, the BART Board of Directors rejected plans for an expensive new extension, in favor of strengthening the core system. While they rejected a conventional BART to Livermore extension on a 5-4 vote, they did not, as we and others hoped, vote to build a Bus Rapid Transit connection to Livermore instead. The Tri-Valley-San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority may now develop its own plans to connect BART to the Altamont Corridor Express rail line. 

On May 24th, BART’s Board of Directors will likely make a huge decision about whether and how to extend BART past the Dublin/Pleasanton station into Livermore. This won’t just affect commuters from the Tri-Valley area of Alameda County, it will affect all 400,000 daily BART riders (plus potential riders).

Will they approve a cost-effective expansion that will improve mobility for Tri-Valley residents and allow for system-wide improvements that benefit all BART riders? Or will they blow $1.6 billion on a 5-mile extension, adding strain on the system that is already stretched dangerously thin. The choice seems blindingly obvious, but the politics of ribbon-cuttings may win out over fiscal responsibility and common sense yet again.

This decision must be made in light of a clear-eyed understanding of how the entire system is doing, i.e. how well it is serving riders. And riders know that the system is not in good shape. BART is now known for delays, overcrowded cars, broken elevators and escalators, and dirty facilities. As BART becomes increasingly unreliable and uncomfortable, lost ridership could lead to diminishing revenues that exacerbate the system’s problems (as well as contributing to traffic and climate change, as would-be BART riders opt to drive instead).

Even after voters approved a $3.5 billion bond measure in 2016 to shore up the 44 year-old system, BART still has over $3.9 billion in unfunded needs for its Capital Improvement Program (See page 5-30 of this document, which also details the potential diversion of $1.4 billion in operating budget to capital expenses). With enough dedicated funding, concrete fixes and long-deferred maintenance can address the problems that plague riders. An automatic train control system to allow trains to run more frequently, new larger cars with an extra door to reduce crowding and speed up on/off-boarding, upgrading wheels to reduce noise, repairing tracks and tunnels for safety and efficiency — the list goes on.

Thanks to Measure RR, BART is starting to make progress on track repair, traction, and power, among other projects. But this is the beginning of a long road. If BART can’t win the additional funding it needs for capital investments, it will be forced to defer the work or take money from operations, both of which would worsen service.

Why, then, should BART embark on an expensive new extension that will further burden the over-burdened system and take money, resources, and attention away from its core needs? It’s certainly true that the Tri-Valley area is under-served by transit and stuck in terrible gridlock on I-580. Luckily, extending conventional BART service to Livermore is not the only way to solve that problem.

There are actually four alternatives under consideration to improve transportation to and from the Tri-Valley:

  • Extending conventional BART service to Isabel Ave in Livermore
  • New rail service (DMU or EMU) to Isabel Ave in Livermore
  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Express Bus to Laughlin Rd in Livermore
  • Enhanced bus service

We already know that DMU/EMU or enhanced bus service are not likely or logical choices, and that the BART Board is basically deciding between conventional BART and BRT. We and other transit and equity advocates are supporting the Bus Rapid Transit option.

Here’s a slide from BART’s presentation comparing the alternatives:

Why BRT and Express Bus to Livermore?

With BRT/express bus to Livermore, transit riders would actually get several lines to choose from. Most of them would hop onto 580 and zip past traffic on the express lanes, and get into a special lane built just for buses to pull up right next to the BART platform at Dublin/Pleasanton. This project would extend farther into Livermore than conventional BART, better connecting to Downtown Livermore, Las Positas College, and Lawrence Livermore Labs via multiple bus lines.

Here is a diagram of the special bus lane alongside the bus platform, and a map of where BRT and express bus would go:

BRT is much less expensive and faster to build than conventional BART. It would be so efficient, it would actually make BART money, with farebox recovery of 193% by 2040 (that’s the percentage of the cost of operating the project covered by fares, see comparison table above). Building Conventional BART would cost $1.2 billion more than BRT, but would result in a time advantage of just three to nine minutes.

BART already has all the money it needs to build BRT, thanks to Alameda County Measure BB. It could have BRT up and running much faster than a conventional BART extension. In fact, it is entirely unclear where BART would get that next $1.2 billion for a conventional extension, as it would have to compete with other regional projects that have scored higher.

BRT is popping up all over the Bay Area, in Los Angeles, and throughout the world — often as a cost-effective alternative to rail. While BRT projects are being built right now in San Francisco and Oakland, the most similar project to what BART envisions for Livermore is the Silver Line in Los Angeles (pictured at the top of this post).

BRT saves money for climate, ridership, and traffic reduction goals

Along with the high price tag ($1.6 billion) for conventional BART to Livermore, it’s important to consider the opportunity cost of that project. What else could BART do with that money?

After spending roughly $400 million on BRT (which BART already has on hand from Measure BB), BART could potentially spend $1.2 billion on core capacity improvements, which would more effectively increase ridership, reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), and decrease CO2 emissions than a conventional BART extension would. (It is worth noting that $400 million of that $1.6 billion price tag would build a new BART maintenance yard on Vasco Rd in Livermore, which the entire system needs in any case.)

As the comparison table above shows, BRT is the most economical option to increase ridership in the Tri-Valley area. Conventional BART would win more passengers than BRT, but not when compared with Core Capacity improvements, which is by far the most efficient way to increase ridership throughout the system. Plus, without core capacity improvements, the influx of new riders from extending conventional BART would just worsen crowding, add strain on the system, and make it harder for people at core stations to board at peak times.

Core Capacity improvements are three times more effective than a conventional BART extension at reducing car miles driven.

Reducing VMT with Core Capacity improvements would also reduce twelve times more greenhouse gas emissions than Conventional BART to Livermore.

Time for BART to live within its means

For the sake of the entire system and all its riders, BART’s maintenance problems can’t be ignored or deferred any longer. BRT would be an effective and efficient way to connect Livermore to BART, and the $1.2 billion saved by not building a conventional BART extension would go much further toward increasing ridership and decreasing driving and pollution — not to mention solving BART’s operating problems — if it was spent on core capacity improvements.

The resources simply aren’t available to build BART everywhere we’d like it to go — like a new extension down Geary to Ocean Beach, or a new infill station halfway between the 24th St. and Glen Park BART Stations in San Francisco. For too long, BART over-extended itself without investing to keep the core system as reliable and robust as the region needs it to be. We can’t outrun those choices forever.

Please join us in urging BART Directors (especially San Francisco Directors Nick Josefowitz, Bevan Dufty and Lateefah Simon) to vote for the BRT option at their May 24 meeting. Send the BART Board of Directors an email at BoardofDirectors@bart.gov.

FeedBlog Signup

About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.