BART director James Fang’s plan for a $30,000 bash (raised from private sources) to celebrate BART to SFO’s 10th anniversary was squelched. But it brought back memories of the opening party held in 2004. I don’t know how much that celebration cost, but it was one of the most elaborate I have ever attended.
I was a guest, not because BART wanted me there — I had been a frequent critic of the project — but because I served on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission which had obtained the funding for BART to SFO, its priority when the regional agency lobbied for federal funds in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the idea which concerned me. It was a good idea to connect BART from the existing Colma station to the airport. But the route it would take was not direct and, because it went underground, it would disrupt many of the cities in its path. My other concern was its impact on Caltrain, used by most Peninsula transit commuters to San Francisco and San Jose.
The party which was held at SFO was huge. The food and drink absolutely deluxe. I remember the layers and layers of smoked salmon which attendees were piling up on their plates. Then there were the commemorative gifts — a watch, a large canvas travel bag, etc. This event was funded by private donors, primarily the contractors whose fortunes soared. Not all elected officials were invited. I don’t believe anyone from Millbrae was because they were unhappy with BART’s plans for their city. And some councilmembers from South San Francisco were left out in the cold without a ticket. But members of the Board of Supervisors and council members from other cities, including San Mateo, who had enthusiastically embraced the project, were there. They sat up front near the head table. I was in the last set of seats closest to the door sitting with lesser members of the BART staff.
BART to SFO, which had many problems when it opened, didn’t attract the riders it predicted, and was losing money (SamTrans had to pick up the tab). Today, it is a success. The $1.5 billion line from Colma to SFO with stops at South San Francisco, San Bruno and Millbrae has carried more than 30 million passengers and is operating at a profit. BART, not SamTrans, now operates this extension and is the beneficiary of the increased revenue. Even though BART took a heavy toll on Caltrain funding, Caltrain reinvented itself and is also a big success.
Today, I would be more than happy to celebrate BART’s achievement. It provides a necessary service and is a boon to Peninsula residents who want to leave their cars behind and travel to the East Bay or to San Francisco. Often objections to a major project fade away once it is built and working. No major infrastructure project is built without vocal critics. In the case of BART to SFO opponents, led by several members of Burlingame’s city council, traveled to D.C. to stop federal funding.
Today, we have another group of people fighting high-speed rail. They bring lawsuits, write letters to the editor and sponsor initiatives. Some suggest that state funding for high-speed rail should be used for early childhood education. No one, not even tea party members, are against early childhood education. And no one should be. It should be available to all children in the United States as part of the public school system. It is a number one priority.
The problem with trading funds is that high-speed rail is a capital project — one time money. Support for universal preschool is an ongoing expense. There is no similarity between the two. High-speed rail in California is going to happen. Just as it has happened in most European countries, in Japan, China, and the eastern United States. Once it is built, people will use it, like it and wonder why there was so much criticism in the past. Just like BART to SFO, it might even turn its critics into fans.
Here’s the cost per mile of building BART to SFO and high-speed rail. BART to SFO from Colma to the airport cost approximately $172 million per mile for 7.2 miles. High-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles will cost approximately $131.5 million per mile for 520 miles.
Local startup makes good: Shanna McClearn and her co-founder developed “Filey” in downtown San Mateo. Now the free App is available at Apple stores for iPhone and iPad. The App manages your email from all accounts and puts them on one list. It’s exciting to have young entrepreneurs in our midst.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at email@example.com.