BART’s Link 21 program envisions a multi-billion-dollar passenger rail network throughout northern California, beginning with a $29 billion second subaqueous rail tube between Oakland and San Francisco. During the last year BATWG spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to figure out whether or not BART’s Link 21 team was making progress. What we do know is that over the last four years, BART’s small Link 21 team, with five private consultants reporting separately to it, has burned through over a hundred million dollars.
So, what exactly has been accomplished in four years for this large planning expenditure?
Thanks to the arcane structure of the Link 21 management hierarchy, coupled with BART’s obvious reluctance to reveal anything substantive about the project, taxpayers remain in the dark about how their tax money is being spent. In early January some rudimentary conceptual engineering sketches belatedly appeared on the Link 21 website that seemed to indicate progress. On January 14, 2023, after reviewing the sketches, BATWG submitted thirteen questions to the BART Board, which were both timely and deserving of answers.
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Our first and most basic question was that given fundamental changes in Bay Area commuting patterns, the exodus of both residents and businesses from San Francisco, the collapse of SF Financial District activity and the 70% drop in BART’s pre-COVID transbay ridership, why are we still spending several hundred million dollars on Link 21 planning? Given the above changes and post-pandemic travel uncertainty, is there any evidence that a $29 billion second transbay tube is still needed?
(On February 27, we received a six page, two-thousand, three-hundred-word response from Link 21’s Project Manager that failed to answer even one of our 13 questions. Instead, we were again treated to a gaggle of generalizations, goals and objective statements, laudatory remarks about how Link 21 would benefit Northern California plus the usual dissertations about process. In other words, nothing new. If anyone wants a copy of BART’s 2300-word response letter, please contact us)
And, for that matter, why the rush to spend tens of billions of additional dollars to plan a vast passenger rail network for all of Northern California, hoping that someday in the distant future it will be funded and built? Instead of continuing to plow ahead with mega-projects that may or may not be necessary, why not instead focus on well identified BART problems in immediate need of attention?
Some good news: there is an increasing awareness by media groups and public leadership, as well as at least some of the BART Directors, that because of BART’s pending financial crisis, immediate steps need to be taken to attract more paying customers. If Link 21 were shut down or at least deferred, it could free up resources to improve BART’s service reliability, safety, and ridership recovery. For a large agency operating in a complex institutional environment, switching gears is by no means easy. Despite this, the BART Board should bring Link 21 to a halt, and restart it only when: a.) the need for it was clearly indicated by future transbay travel demand and b.) the funding needed for implementation was on the horizon.