By Noel T. Braymer
BART was conceived as an alternative to building freeways in San Francisco while preserving its role as the commercial and job center of the Bay Area. It was part of the effort to stop freeway construction in San Francisco which frankly didn’t have the room to handle freeway loads of cars during the work week. The intent was to build a rail passenger service which would compete with freeway auto travel in terms of speed, cost and comfort. The BART cars were designed to be wide and roomy with air conditioning, carpeting and padded cloth seats. Even air conditioning was rare for transit and most cars in the 1950’s when BART was being planned. BART trains were expected to travel at 80 miles per hour to achieve an average speed of 55 miles per hour. Much of BART was built elevated; it was going to be a fully grade separated service with no grade crossing. To save money on construction to elevate BART, cars where built with aluminum instead of steel to make them lighter so the pillars didn’t have to be as strong as needed if the BART cars were heavier. BART also used a wider track gauge than most trains. The reason BART gave for doing this was to increase stability for the cars against crosswinds on the Golden Gate Bridge. Plans were later dropped to build service on the Golden Gate Bridge. One reason proposed unofficially was the non-standard gauge was used to discourage plans to run BART on existing railroads such as the Southern Pacific commuter rail service between San Jose and San Francisco.
BART with Muni, succeeded in centering economic growth along Market Street with joint subway services which kept downtown San Francisco as the commercial hub of the Bay Area. This also led to major changes in the skyline of San Francisco with many new hi-rise office buildings.The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which shutdown the Bay Bridge for a month proved the value of BART to the Bay Area and for travel to San Francisco. Even after the Bay Bridge reopened, ridership on BART remained high and crossings between Oakland and San Francisco matched or exceeded traffic over the Bay Bridge. While BART planning was different, many of its pioneering efforts didn’t pan out. It was quickly found that it was not economical to operate BART at 80 miles per hour. This put undue wear and tear on the brakes and tracks as well as increased energy consumption. Another problem with BART cars because they are unique, they cost more to replace than more conventional equipment. This could be a factor in why BART has been slow in replacing its car fleet. Since 1972 when BART first opened, BART has only had one new car order to increase its car fleet. It is now only starting to receive replacement cars for its original 45 year old cars.
BART is typical of what is happening with infrastructure in this country. In the Post-World War II era, between roughly 1945 to the mid 1970’s the United States built lots of new roads, pipelines, power lines, aqueducts, sewage treatment plants, airports and so on. Much of this was the result of keeping after the war the tax system created during World War II that was needed to pay for the war. This included higher taxes on businesses and wealthy Americans than we have today. Tax rates before 1980 also encouraged businesses to invest in capital projects to earn tax savings. I can remember a co-owner of where I worked in the 1980’s after giving employees an end of year bonus telling us that he would rather give the employees the bonus money than spend the money on taxes. What has been happening since the late 70’s has been an increase in deferred maintenance of infrastructure in both the public and private sectors. With this we are seeing an increase in failures of this country’s infrastructure. This is not true in most developed countries which continue to maintain their infrastructure.
While maintenance has been deferred, much of the available government money for infrastructure has gone into new projects while ignoring existing projects post due for maintenance. This is particularly true of public roads and transit. BART is now extending service from Fremont to San Jose. It is also extending service from Dublin/Pleasanton to Livermore and planning a connecting service from Pittsburg /Bay Point to Antioch. These will be valuable projects. But the reality today for BART is much of its 1970’s infrastructure in falling apart. This includes the tracks, the stations, the power systems and signalling. In 1972, BART’s signalling system was computerized and hi-tech.The same signalling system is still in place, but spare parts are had to find and BART’s signaling computers are incompatible with modern computers and modern rail signalling.
Some recent BART capital projects have not done well. BART built and operates an elevated people mover to the Oakland Airport from its joint BART/Amtrak Oakland Coliseum station. This replaced a dedicated transit bus connection. BART’s expectation was this connection would pay for itself both in fares to use the airport connector as well as increased ridership on BART. Ridership on the BART Oakland Airport connector is below projections and is not paying for itself. Much the same thing has happened at Millbrae. The plan was to create a joint BART/ Caltrain station with connections for both services to nearby San Francisco International Airport. A plan was put forth to extend the planned airport people mover to the new joint BART/Caltrain station so transit bus riders as well as BART and Caltrain riders could easily connect to all of the terminals at the airport. This is done at other airports and is planned for connecting LA Metro trains and local transit to the terminals at LAX with a Peoplemover.
BART refused to have any part of it, demanding that it had to have a station inside the airport. What BART got at great expense was a station that dead ended at the edge of the international terminal which is slower and reduces train capacity compared to regular run-through service . For most BART passengers this either meant a transfer to the airport People Mover or a long walk to their terminal. Ridership on BART to the airport is below projections and ridership and transfers at Millbrae are well below projections. Only one BART Line of the 2 which serve Millbrae goes to the airport. There is little in the way of transfers between BART and Caltrain to the airport, or elsewhere. This includes all the transit services in the Bay Area. To make transfers easier in the Bay Area most agencies accept the Clipper Card. This is a prepaid debit card where card readers deduct your fare from your Clipper Card as you board a bus or train. While this makes it easier to transfer, passengers still have to pay full fare for both services to transfer between services, even if the distance is rather small. Even if the cost to transfer between BART and Caltrain just to and from the airport was a dollar, it would likely make up for the lost revenue from people who won’t pay full fare to use both services for such a short trip.
There is much BART and the Bay Area could learn from Southern California about rail service. BART and Bay Area transit in general are classic examples of agencies acting parochially, worrying about their own turf and fighting other agencies for funding. A major reason for this is the Bay Area developed much earlier than Southern California. With this came more smaller counties and city agencies compared to Southern California were most development exploded after World War II. Just Los Angeles County has more people and greater land area than most of the Bay Area. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, also called LA Metro is in charge of transit and most transportation including roads in the county. There are several transit agencies in Los Angeles besides LA Metro. LA Metro arbitrates issues between these agencies such as routing and transfers conflicts between services. LA Metro is busy with major rail transit projects made possible by voter approved sale tax increases. But it is also using that money to maintain existing services. LA Metro is now receiving new cars for expanding service on its Gold and Expo Lines. This car order is also going towards replacing the original Blue Lines cars in service since 1990. At the same time LA Metro is doing major maintenance on the Blue and Green lines. They are also planning improvements on the Blue Line to improve reliability and reduce running times.
Metrolink trains serves Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura Counties and the city of Oceanside in San Diego County. A Metrolink ticket includes free transfers to transit in the county of the riders destination. For many that is Los Angeles County. A Metrolink ticket for Los Angeles County includes a chip so it can be used as Tap Card on the turnstiles at the LA Metrorail stations and is accepted on all LA Metro trains and most buses. Some but not all local transit bus services in Los Angeles County also honor Metrolink tickets. The LOSSAN JPA which administers Pacific Surfliner Amtrak service for the State is now offering transfers to local transit on Surfliner trains. The Coaster Trains between Oceanside and Solana Beach offer free transfers to the Sprinter Trains and North County Transit District buses. The round trip ticket for an adult between Oceanside-Solana Beach to San Diego is $11 dollars. For $12 dollars a passenger can get a Regional Day Pass good on Coaster, Sprinter and Trolley trains as well as most buses in San Diego County.