New York Report
Letters to the Editor
Raise all the Damned Bridge Tolls to $5
Why not a Floating Bay to Breakers?
Bill Coolidge’s Bay Journal…
Alameda Offers New Ferry Contract
Can We Afford More BART?
Teri Shore Bay Environment
Robert Gray Charters Offers The Maritime History Tour
Russell Long, Crusader for Environmentally Sound Ferries, Cooks Up Coup
Take the Jeremiah O’Brien to Sacramento
What’s Doing in the Carquinez Strait
Ferry Service Headed Back to Richmond
California Canoe and Kayak Hosts 9th Annual Race for Treasure
Alameda Legacy Home Tour
WTA Report…
Working Waterfront
Water Transit Authority  WTA

Can We Afford More BART?

By Guy Span, S.D.

Locally known as "Bay Area’s Recurring Tragedy," BART was a grand vision when it was first conceived in 1957. National City Lines (the private owner of the Key System) was desperate to get rid of its unsubsidized and money-losing electric railway across the Bay Bridge. But the commuting voters wouldn’t allow this service to be axed unless there was a replacement being planned. And for the conspiracy buffs out there, National City Lines was owned by a consortium that included General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and two other parts manufacturers who by 1949 had purchased transit systems, replaced trains with buses (from GM, using Firestone tires burning Standard Oil fuel), and then re-sold the companies. GM was fined a paltry $5,000 by the Chicago Federal Court for engaging in monopolistic behavior.

But back to BART. The grand plan was to rip up the bridge trains (a win for National City Lines), opening up two more lanes on the lower deck and making each deck directional, thus immediately solving the emerging congestion problem. Long term, the plan was to generate tax revenues to fund the $996 million system, the largest locally paid public works project in the history of the United States. Let’s say that again. There were no Federal grants available for transit, so the locals would pay the nearly $1 billion cost. For funding, politicians had to go the voters and in a surprise move, slightly more than 60 percent supported funding for BART. At the time, one local executive noted, "If I’d known the damn thing would pass, I wouldn’t have supported it…"

So by July 1, 1963, a $792 million general obligation bond had passed and the first engineering work began in earnest. Nine years later, on September 11, 1972, the system opened to the public for the first time. The cost, due to funding delays, inflation, and overruns, had swelled from a planned $996 million to over $1.6 billion, or $22.5 million a mile for the 71.5-mile system.

BART wanted everything to be specially designed for the world’s most modern rapid transit railroad. They selected 5’ 6" (British broad gauge) for their track width to ensure that American car builders would have to redesign the transit cars (transit systems generally used 4’ 8.5"). Automatic train control would ensure that the system operated flawlessly. Yet BART’s insistence that everything not be governed by contemporary railroad engineering led to some bizarre events. Southern Pacific was asked to provide some advice to BART, when BART had trouble with its test train derailing consistently at a switch.

An engineering officer was dispatched to the scene and in less than 15 minutes, he solved the problem that had bedeviled the BART engineers for months. He pointed out that the AAR (Association of American Railroads) standards required that the gauge be opened one-quarter inch at a switch to allow the wheels to track in a new direction. BART had the gauge exactly "correct," which caused continuous derailment.

When the system finally opened, General Manager Bill Stokes called it the "swift, virtually noiseless, and vibration-free electric train." As you might guess, Stokes was more of an advertising man rather than a heavy rail transit operator. He selected the streamlined noses for the BART trains that even today give it the look of a modern intercity, high-speed train, rather than a transit system.

But the streamlined noses make it difficult to add or remove cars from a train (the noses can’t couple together), so the new cars are built without noses and the refurbishing program now underway will eventually eliminate this feature altogether. As a result, BART will take on an appearance more like its transit brethren.

One of the other early promises of BART was that every passenger would have a seat. Indeed, the first cars did not come equipped with stanchions and railings for standing passengers to hold on to. As standees grew, this was quickly corrected. Thus, virtually none of the early promises of BART were fulfilled. If you’ve ridden the service, you know that it is not "swift" (one hour from Richmond to Freemont), it is not "noiseless" (anybody put a db meter on these things?), and it certainly is not "vibration free." About the only promise BART will eventually fulfill is the one about going to the airport.

And that decision is looking to be the most costly one that BART has ever made. The original 71.5 miles of construction cost the taxpayers $1.6 billion ($22.5 million a mile). The Livermore and Pittsburg extensions cost another $2.6 billion ($78.8 million a mile for 33 miles), and the airport extension will cost $1.4 billion ($170.5 million a mile for 8.7 miles). That would appear to be a lot of money to take you and your bags to the new International Terminal, when you actually wish to fly a domestic route (from the domestic terminals, which are located fairly far away).

The Latin word for baggage is illustrative: impedimenta, meaning essential stuff that you can’t jettison which just gets in your way. Since a significant percentage of airline passengers travel with impedimenta, the option of using BART to the airport obviously fails the convenience test.

BART fails a couple of other sensibility tests as well. Its capital consumption to date has been enormous. Not counting the cost of the new and incomplete Warm Springs extension, BART has consumed over $6.8 billion dollars in capital since its inception. But if you adjust for the time value of money, BART has consumed a net present value (with a 5% rate) of over $14 billion dollars. These are numbers that don’t even fit on a hand-held calculator.

But there’s more! The 2003 budget calls for an additional $10 million in capital improvements and a shocking $59.2 million for debt service. That means that even after spending a present value of $14 billion, there is still debt of over half a billion dollars out there.

That’s not all we have spent on BART. Every year, the system costs more to operate than it receives in passenger revenues. When planned, BART was expected to make a $10 million operating surplus, while in actuality, BART lost approximately $40 million each year in its first full three years due to lower than expected patronage and much higher than expected operating costs. However, the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) measures the performance of each transit provider using fare box recovery compared to operating expenses as its yardstick. Under that measurement, BART performs fairly well, given the volume of riders. Fare box recovery has risen as the volume of riders increases, achieving a gain from around 50 percent in 1996 to 62.2 percent in 2000. However, if you adjust for the operating losses accrued since 1973, BART has cost us an additional $2.7 billion dollars. Taking into account the time value of money, that number increases to $4.1 billion dollars. Add that to the capital consumption present value of $14 billion and $0.5 billion debt and you get $18.6 billion–a number that approaches the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Wyoming.

Back to the MTC’s measurement of a transit system. (Note that it only measures operating expenses versus operating revenues.) Under that scenario, a ferry, a bus operator, and BART are only measured by operating ratios, not by capital consumed. If we added in capital consumed (and existing debt), we would have a far more realistic appraisal of cost-efficient transit. It is important to note that ferry services and bus operators may lease equipment (docks, buses, boats, etc.) and leased equipment is an operating expense, reflecting negatively on fare box ratio. BART appears to buy everything it can, so as to create the appearance of an improved operating ratio, kind of like modern day corporate accounting.

Until and unless we measure transit systems on their use of capital, we will keep on spending billions of dollars, where a lower cost alternative approach will be less expensive and perhaps just as useful. Indeed, one has to wonder why BART wants to build more extensions. We are at the limit of the number of trains that can be crammed through the tubes, with a two to three minute headway at rush hour. Unless we re-design the BART cars to have more or wider doors (and fewer seats), we cannot reduce the dwell time at the Embarcadero or West Oakland stations and this limits the number of trains through the tube. The trains cannot be lengthened, as they fill the station platforms at present. In short, there is no way to increase capacity as BART increases its ridership.

So what then is the value of more BART extensions? This curmudgeon would speculate that BART sees expensive extensions as the only way to increase ridership, thus improving the one unit it is currently measured on–fare box recovery ratio.

BART is the largest multidistrict transit service, and it is spreading throughout the Bay Area. BART now has management responsibility for the "Capitol Corridor" rail service linking San Jose to Sacramento. The Warm Springs extension brings it closer to San Jose. BART’s purpose is apparently to grow ever larger, regardless of the cost. Perhaps it’s time that the public and the various agencies considered the cost per mile and the cost of capital and weighed that against the alternatives.

The bottom line is extensions don’t mean more trains to the suffering BART riders, they just mean fuller trains when it gets to your stop. And at $170.5 million a mile, that ain’t cheap.