By Zakhary Mallett (BART Director, District 7),
My effort to revitalize the idea of extending BART’s Richmond leg of service to the northern communities of West Contra Costa County has taken some big steps forward since I was first elected in 2012. This leg is the only leg of BART to never be extended since its opening despite the corridor it serves (Interstate 80) having the long-standing distinction of being the most-congested in the entire region. Most recently the West Contra Costa High Capacity Transit Study that I spearheaded reached approximately the three-quater mark in its completion. Once the study is completed, it will allow additional big steps to be taken as early as next year in bringing much-needed relief to the Interstate 80 corridor.
But these milestones are not without continued alignment politics in West Contra Costa County that are at the root of why an extension in West Contra Costa County has never been realized. As local news reporter, Tom Lochner, recently reported, as part of the study, the West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee (WCCTAC) Board axed a key BART alternative from further study (an extension via Interstate 80 from El Cerrito del Norte), even after I secured from BART the necessary funds to further study that option at no cost to WCCTAC or local cities.
While this undermines the current study offering a thoroughly competitive review of all options, the good news is that this study is not a BART alternatives analysis study, which is both practically and legally necessary before an extension is realized. What the current study has done, though, is underscore that a BART extension to Hercules is sorely needed, which will allow BART to pursue a comprehensive and BART-specific alternatives analysis that can hopefully lead to the selection and implementation of an optimal extension in the corridor.
My Concern and the Politics
My concern as your BART Director and as a Transportation Planner is that we axed alternatives too soon by not giving legitimate alternatives a thorough review. Assuming all alternatives are feasible and competitive in other ways, the arguably most important element of a transit alternatives study is figuring out which option will get the most people and cars off the road. While many of the now-axed alternatives were shown to be infeasible or significantly inferior, neither of the two BART alternatives was shown to be; they remained competitive, but funding forced us to eliminate one of them (at least before I removed that constraint).
The current study began with eight alternatives that varied from expanded express bus services to BART extension alternatives and, due to funding limitations, was designed to be reduced down to just four alternatives that would be more thoroughly examined. In May, when the decision to axe certain alternatives was made, the study’s main fulfillments included engineering cost estimating, preliminary environmental impact review of the different alternatives, and how consistent the different alternatives were with local land-use and development plans.
Here are some of the pros and cons of these BART alternatives based on the study and some basic qualitative considerations:
The Rumrill/I-80 alignment would result in both BART routes (Fremont and San Francisco/Millbrae) being extended to communities north, providing on-going combined frequency as low as 7.5 minutes when both routes are in operation. This option also has the potential to directly serve the densest community in the corridor, Central San Pablo, and is the only option that is consistent with Richmond’s General Plan that explicitly refers to both of BART’s Richmond-based routes serving the Downtown area.
At the same time, this alignment results in a circuitous route that would add 5 minutes and 2.8 miles (a fare impact) to any customer traveling to/from locations north of Richmond when compared to to the I-80 alignment. The alternative would also either be an aerial structure through the City of San Pablo, posing noise and visual impacts on the local community, or would have increased construction costs for mitigating them (e.g., tunneling).
The I-80 alignment is the most direct alignment through the corridor, more centrally serves the corridor and its development patterns overall, and is the most accessible for attracting automobile traffic on the highway.
However, this alternative would split service north of the El Cerrito del Norte Station with either BART’s Fremont route or San Francisco/Millbrae route going to Richmond and the other going to Hercules, thereby reducing service into Downtown Richmond in half. It also means that neither leg would experience the combined frequency of having both BART routes. On the flip side, because this option would require service between West Contra Costa County and San Francisco/Millbrae to become a fulltime service, all locations between El Cerrito del Norte and 12th Street/Oakland City Center Stations would experience frequency improvements with combined frequency from these two routes during all BART operating hours.
So, which is better? The answer is we really don’t know. But we will find out once we perform a BART alternatives analysis that will not only assess these alignment choices, but many others that were not included in the current study. That effort should hopefully begin sometime next year, once the current study wraps up.
This article originally appeared in BART Director Mallett’s e-newsletter.