As was graphically pointed out in presentations by MTC, BART, the MTA and Caltrain at a meeting of the SFCTA on February 28, 2023, Bay Area transit systems are having to adapt to greatly reduced post-COVID ridership, escalating operating and development costs and uncertainties over whether or not the generous State and federal subventions of the past will continue. Unfortunately, these problems are occurring at a time when public confidence in the ability of the large transit agencies to operate efficiently and improve their services in an effective manner has declined. So what happened? What went wrong? How can trust in local and regional agencies be re-established?
It appears that a reduction in the quality of daily transit service and the mismanagement of certain large infrastructure projects are at least partly responsible for the problem:
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MTC: The result of MTC’s half century reign over regional transportation is not pretty. Instead of steadily improving transit services caused by well thought out and cost-effective infrastructure projects, the Region has been basically treading water. Many see MTC as a large bureaucracy hopelessly embroiled in its own seemingly endless parade of plans, programs, studies, reports and presentations which are then shepherded through seven standing committees, up to 20 inter-agency committees, MTC’s Policy Advisory Council and finally the MTC Board. It will come as no surprise that what emerges from this complex process is usually too little and too late, and often of small consequence.
Doyle Drive: In 2003 the San Francisco voters approved a $420 million Caltrans seismic upgrade of portions of Doyle Drive running through the Presidio of San Francisco. But after the project was taken over by the small but ambitious SF County Transportation Authority (CTA), the voter-approved scope and budget were tossed out the window and the upgrade of 68-foot wide Doyle Drive soon morphed into the all-new 138-foot wide Presidio Freeway, ultimately costing the tax payers over five times the original voter-approved amount.
Central Subway: Back in 2008 and 2009 the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) sold this project to the public and local elected politicians based upon grossly exaggerated ridership projections (up to “99,200” a day), wildly inaccurate trip time savings and a big lie about saving the Muni $23.8 million a year in operating costs. The 1.3 mile long Central Subway began commercial operations on January 7, 2023, four years late and $400 million over budget. As of January 28, 2023, boardings from the four Central Subway stations averaged a very low 3,800 boardings a day, (equivalent to 7,600 riders a day), an estimated 85% of whom were already traveling on Muni buses.
BART Phase II: The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is completing the design of a 6.3-mile BART Phase II extension from the Berryessa Station to the Caltrain Santa Clara Station that includes 4.7 miles of tunnel. To appease a small but noisy cabal of businessmen fearful of temporary construction effects around one of the stations, the VTA allowed itself to be bullied into making the subway tunnel to include the entire station. This caused the size of the tunnel to be a gigantic 54-foot inches in diameter, as large as a five-story building. With the conventional approach used by subway builders around the world, two much smaller and cheaper tunnels could have been built much closer to street grade at much lower cost. VTA’s estimated cost of the project has risen from $4.8 billion in February 2018, to $5.6 billion in March 2020, to $6.9 billion in October 2020, to $9.5 billion today, and will likely rise even further, all because of some very expensive and unneeded changes that are likely to discourage ridership rather than encourage it.
BART Link 21 Project: In 2019 BART launched its massive Link21 project, whose expenditures, by the end of 2022, had risen to $82 million spent with little of consequence to show for it. It is envisioned that the project will eventually create multiple passenger rail improvements throughout Northern California, including a second Bay Rail Crossing between Oakland and San Francisco estimated by the Link 21 planners to cost at least $30 million. The ultimate cost to the taxpayers of the entire project, if it were ever built, is unknown.
SMART: The ill-conceived Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit service (SMART) extends 45 miles from Larkspur to Santa Rosa. Because of its extremely low ridership, the Marin and Sonoma County taxpayers have heavily subsidized the operation from the outset. Post-Covid, things have gotten even worse. The SMART Board’s unaccountable reaction is to this is to extend SMART an additional 36-miles into the hinterlands north of Santa Rosa, thereby worsening its already unacceptably high operating cost per rider.
Can things get better? Can the Region get past its bureaucratic morass? Unless some basic organizational and structural changes are made, the answer is NO.
For some ideas of where BATWG thinks things should go from here, read Looking Forward elsewhere in this Newsletter.