Note: This column is a follow-up response to Judge Quentin Kopp’s letter to the Editor defending the BART to SFO extension. You can also read the original column that started this debate: "BART to SFO is Everything Wrong with Bay Area Transit".
I am honored that Judge Quentin Kopp chose to respond to my column after I pointed out the problems with BART's SFO and Millbrae extension. Unfortunately, the letter is mistaken on most of its claims regarding the performance of BART's SFO extension.
Judge Kopp opens by calling me a Know-Nothing—a strange characterization, as I have never expressed any negative sentiment toward Catholic immigration.
Then, he pooh-poohs the most damning aspect of the SFO extension: its low ridership, relative to both expectations and construction costs. In today's money, BART spent $2.3 billion to transport 21,000 riders every weekday. Of those 21,000 riders, the airport comprises only about 7,000. This was in the 1990s, when some American cities were spending less than $10,000 per rider on their light rail (such as San Diego), when they were prioritizing corridors serving residential and commercial areas and avoiding circuitous routes like that taken by BART from Millbrae and SFO to Downtown San Francisco.
SFO gets 53,000,000 passengers per year. Of those, 77% are O&D passengers rather than connecting-flight passengers, giving BART about an 11% mode share. Kopp presents service right to the terminal as the extension's biggest benefit; but BART only goes to the international terminal, and only 22% of traffic at SFO is international. But SFO service wasn't even the primary goal of the extension. Kopp also blames the taxi lobby's opposition to the extension, but since the 1990s, medallion cabs in the Bay Area have given way to app-hailed rideshare such as Uber and Lyft, which are outcompeting BART for airport traffic.
Kopp's letter reveals the real intentions behind BART’s SFO extension: taking over Caltrain operations. This is why the extension branches into SFO and Millbrae, rather than just going to SFO and connecting to Caltrain at San Bruno. He even hints at this with an accusation of agency turf wars against the airport's general manager—turf wars he is still fighting in his letter to the editor, against Caltrain.
But this is not about whether BART or Caltrain is less mismanaged. It's about which option was better for connecting Millbrae to Downtown San Francisco in the 1990s, and which will be the better connection in the next decade.
Caltrain only needs a short tunnel to connect to Downtown, where most people want to go, and could offer 19-minute trips from Millbrae to Transbay Terminal. BART somehow needed a long stretch of aerials and tunnels in the suburbs, and offers a 32-minute trip to Embarcadero. This is a problem inherent to the roundabout alignment BART uses to reach the Peninsula. It's not an indictment of the agency, which does a good enough job connecting people in the East Bay and in the residential areas of the city it serves to Downtown San Francisco.
In the 1990s, the Bay Area had a choice between ceding to the inter-agency turf wars embedded in BART's planning apparatus, and coordinating different agencies so that each does what it's best at. It chose wrong, and ended up billions of dollars poorer.
The region faces the same choice today: listen to the people who were wrong then and are still unrepentant, or listen to the activists who sounded the alarm about the cost and ridership estimates, and are calling for Caltrain-High Speed Rail integration as the primary means of moving people up and down the Peninsula. With the benefit of hindsight, the right choice is more clear today than ever.
Alon Levy is a mathematician with a strong interest in urbanism and mass transit, and currently works as a freelance writer. He contributes to the Bay City Beacon as a weekly transit columnist for Pedestrian Observations. You can find more of his writing supporting walkability and good transit.
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