Link 21: Proceeding on Auto-Pilot?

On September 20, 2022, BART Link 21 team members updated BATWG on the status of their project. We learned a lot. We learned about the strenuous and costly efforts that the BART team and its five consultants under the leadership of BART Project Director Sadie Graham have made to try to explain their project to stakeholders around the Region. And we also learned about the difficulty they were having in trying to make sense of a new and unpredictable set of circumstances brought on by COVID and its aftermath.

Link21’s Current Status

The Link 21 team is clearly struggling to pin down the nature and effect of the oncoming changes in employment, housing and commute practices on general travel patterns, and how these changes would affect Link21’s plans for an ambitious new regional rail system.

Yet without resolving these issues, by October 2022 the Link21 planners had already gone through a total of $60 million, including a mind-boggling $24 million spent on “program management, project controls, consultant management & strategic advice” and another $10 million spent on outreach. Despite September 20th’s thorough and effective presentation, the results of the Link21 effort to date remain cloudy and it remains difficult to understand how and why so much money has been spent and where the project is headed.

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It’s most ambitious and costly element would be a second subaqueous rail tube to be constructed between San Francisco and Oakland which, including its subway extensions on both sides of the Bay, would cost an estimated $29 billion. No one is saying what Link21’s ultimate cost would be but, based upon the nature and extent of the rail improvements being discussed, it is easy to see a project total of $60 billion or more.

All this, despite the fact that the conditions that existed 5 or 6 years ago when the Link21 project was being defined no longer exist. Which raises a number of important questions in need of answers: Is work-at-home here to stay? Is the reduction in downtown center activities and dispersal of commercial activities temporary or permanent? Will transbay BART ever again be as crowded as it used to be? Could the existing tube together with a speeded-up and otherwise stepped up transbay bus system be made attractive enough to meet the need?

Perhaps, instead of plowing blindly ahead assuming that all will return to “normal”, Link 21 should be put on hold for a few years until the ongoing changes in transportation patterns become a little more predictable. In in the meantime, perhaps the long-delayed plan to activate a speeded-up, hi-tech style, transbay regional bus service should be accelerated. In any event, the need for transit agencies like BART to tighten up on their cost controls is apparent.

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