A March 10, 2014 column by Sue Lempert in the Daily Journal contains several memorable facts, together with incomplete assertions and arguable opinions. It’s true that BART director James Fang notified her, me and others of a planned commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the opening of BART-to-San Francisco International Airport service in 2004. Fang seeks re-election to the BART Board of Directors in November against a prominent opponent and needs attention, especially after joining unionized BART employees last summer in demanding more taxpayer money for salaries and benefits from his eight other fellow BART board members (did I hear someone talk about the fox in the henhouse?). It is also true that such commemoration was canceled for reasons unknown to me and probably irrelevant to readers.
It is further true that the night before the opening of such service in 2004, a reportedly gaudy celebration was staged at a Peninsula hotel which the usual political poobahs attended. As a San Mateo County Superior Court judge then, I declined to attend, notwithstanding the fact that I was the elected public official in 1994 most responsible for a San Francisco ballot measure which compelled extension of BART into SFO, rather than to a San Bruno station location that would require riders to transfer to a monorail planned by the uncooperative SFO general manager, who abhorred any other public agency on premises he controlled. The party was indeed paid for by the engineering and contractor firms which had received millions of taxpayer dollars and could easily afford gifts and other emoluments for public officials.
Ridership on BART to SFO met predictions from the beginning. Lempert claims it “was losing money (SamTrans had to pick up the tab).” Every public transit agency in the Bay Area (there are 28 of them) “loses money,” including SamTrans and Caltrain. There was, and is, one exception: BART to SFO, which achieves a 114.6 percent fare box recovery ratio, meaning that fares pay for all operating expenses and provide a 14.6 percent profit to BART. Compare SamTrans, which recovers about 20 percent of its operating costs from fares, and the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which recovers only 30 percent of its operating costs from riders, meaning that taxpayers subsidize the remaining 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Happily, Caltrain now attains about 60 percent from fares. The highest overall fare box recovery ratio in the Bay Area belongs to the entire BART system, which gains almost 68 percent of its costs from fares paid by its 350,000 or so daily users. It is fallacious for Lempert to claim that BART-to-SFO “took a heavy toll on Caltrain funding. ...” From the outset of BART operations in 1972, with a Daly City station, San Mateo County has obtained BART service without participating financially in the 1962 $792 million general obligation bond issue of subsequent half-cent sales tax to complete BART’s initial 72 miles. Alameda County, Contra Costa County and San Francisco taxpayers footed these bills and still do. San Mateo County taxpayers do not.
Ms. Lempert was a board member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2004 even though she was no longer on the San Mateo City Council. Federal funding for the SFO-BART extension was transmitted through MTC, as is the case with distribution of all federal funds for highways and public transit in the Bay Area. That distribution of money from the general fund of the United States of America occurred pursuant to the so-called “New Starts” program enacted by Congress and the president for defraying the construction cost of new public transit rail projects and the extensions of existing ones nationwide. MTC had successfully submitted a BART-to-SFO project and San Jose’s Guadalupe Corridor Light Rail Line as the Bay Area’s two “New Starts” priorities. The San Jose light rail line was, and still is, a “dog”; because MTC, however, consists of nine counties and their representatives, geographical political factors caused inclusion of the Guadalupe Corridor Line light rail line in San Jose in MTC’s application for federal funds. MTC members, like Lempert, compromised to add San Jose’s Guadalupe Light Corridor Line as a worthy “New Start.” Last year, it required an 88 percent taxpayer subsidy in a city with a population of over 1.1 million. That is, the San Jose light rail line recovers approximately 12 percent of its operation costs from riders (Compare that to the 114.6 percent BART-to-SFO fare box recovery ratio). History repeats itself. MTC has currently sponsored two more Bay Area “New Starts” projects. One is meritorious, namely, extending BART from Warm Springs in Alameda County to the San Jose city line. The other is another “dog,” the $1.6 billion Central Subway Project of 1.6 miles in San Francisco, a noteworthy waste of taxpayer dollars.
I add more historical footnotes. SamTrans never operated the BART-to-SFO extension. The Burlingame City Council did not oppose such extension, just as it has opposed the California High-Speed Rail project. But, that project is no longer high speed. As stated by its chairman last February, it now represents a “statewide rail modernization program ...,” not a system which travels at 200 mph in the Central Valley and even up to 125 mph on the Peninsula and in the Los Angeles Basin. That’s the reason, to quote Ms. Lempert, “... today, we have another group of people fighting high-speed rail.” That’s the reason Kings County and two county ranchers filed a thus far winning lawsuit over violations of the 2008 bond measure approved by voters in the amount of $9.95 billion, such as forcing riders from San Francisco to Los Angeles to change trains twice, preventing high-speed trains from operating at five-minute headways during peak hours and not meeting ballot measure-required travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles and other routes.
Lempert refers to high-speed rail existing in “the eastern United States.” She must mean the Amtrak Acela system between Washington and Boston. It’s not high-speed. As a March letter to the Daily Journal notes, Acela averages 70 mph, not 200. Finally, Lempert’s reliance on the current estimate of just under $68 billion for a high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles is misplaced; a year ago, the $98 billion estimate spawned a paroxysm of anxiety in architects of the present bastardization of California High-Speed Rail, including its chairman and all but two other board members. The ballot measure requirement of service from San Francisco to Anaheim (not just Los Angeles) was quickly ignored to reduce the cost estimate to $68 billion, which was then reduced last February to $67.5 billion! (I didn’t know California was experiencing deflation).
In sum, I’m glad San Francisco voters insisted upon building BART into the airport and that San Mateo County supervisors like the late Mike Nevin cooperated fully in removing any county obstacles.
Quentin L. Kopp is a former state senator and San Mateo County Superior Court judge.