BART’s original common-sense goal was to serve San Mateo County and the whole Bay region. But then Santa Clara County opted out of transit in favor of highways followed by San Mateo County favoring (now) Caltrain. Marin joined the exit. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors acted to not let us vote on BART. San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa voters approved, construction began in 1964 and service began September 1972 adding the Transbay Tube in 1974.
Playing catch-up, in 1990 San Mateo County contributed a $200 million “buy-in” in lieu of joining the BART district and end-of-the-line BART Colma opened in 1996.
County voters here approved Measure K in November 1987 and construction began November 1997 on 8.7 new railway miles to the South San Francisco, San Bruno, SFO and Millbrae stations. Caltrain and BART connected in Millbrae with tracks pointed to continue BART south. The San Mateo County BART extension cost $1.5 billion and opened to the public on June 22, 2003. Seems simple now but every step was a fight.
Back in 1987 and again in 1997 the chief opponents of the BART extension were Caltrain aficionados who feared the demise of the commuter train. Those fears were unfounded. Caltrain now runs at capacity, about 60,000 system-wide riders a day. Today, 19,000 board Caltrain and 36,000 board BART each day in San Mateo County clearly demonstrating a need for both systems.
Missing though is a plan to fill the gap of BART around the Bay. San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are the missing links. Key issues for Caltrain today are evaporating funding from the federal government and high-speed rail for long-planned electrification. These are important issues needing to be solved. Left in the lurch, however, is a plan to complete the last BART system link between the stub end at SFO in Millbrae and the Santa Clara approved end near the San Jose airport.
This BART down the Peninsula link has long suffered from a mistaken premise — that it should share the Caltrain right of way (ROW) as it completes the Bay loop. The fundamental flaw is that the Caltrain ROW runs right through city centers and BART would interfere and conflict with both Caltrain and possible HSR. How then to complete the missing link?
I worked with BART in 1997 on an alternate alignment for an elevated extension down the center of Highway 101. BART completed a “Sketch Analysis” showing this alignment to be cheaper, better and faster than the Caltrain ROW. This alignment would much better serve high-tech and other businesses east of Highway 101 and directly reduce traffic. Estimated new ridership of 40,000 San Mateo County boardings per day added to the estimated 24,000 for three-county Caltrain electrification (8,000 in San Mateo County) would substantially relieve not just freeway, but spillover local road congestion as well. Both Caltrain modernization and a BART extension are needed to fill the burgeoning demand and ease the congestion of 230,000 vehicles per day on Highway 101.
With federal officials closing the spigot for transit funding, how can Caltrain modernize and BART extend? Surely we need to continue to pursue federal funds through our local representatives. But being a blue state with a red Congress, we need a plan B. That alternate plan is to do it ourselves. Wherever could we locals get that kind of money?
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has authority to levy a half-cent sales tax for transportation. That’s about $80 million per year. And how about we ask the big business contributing to the congestion for an equal match? Combined with a contribution from the county, this $160 million to $200 million per year would be enough to transform transit and comprehensively relieve congestion. We are way beyond the incremental fixes currently being proposed.
So what’s better? Wait for a new majority in Congress or a president more amenable to transit or solve our problems with money raised and spent locally? Nobody likes new taxes but voters in San Mateo County are disgusted with traffic congestion. They want action on upgrading transit to relieve our clogged highways and local roads.
Our trains, buses and shuttles all need to interconnect conveniently to be useful. Completing BART around the Bay along with Caltrain upgrades would reduce time-sucking highway and local street congestion. Just waiting for federal and high-speed rail funds is a fool’s errand. These are ambitious, long-term projects and we need to begin them now.
Tom Huening served on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors from 1987 to 1998 and served as the county controller from 1999 to 2012. Huening wrote the 1987 ballot measure “K” to bring BART to SFO and the initial measure “A” Caltrain and highway sales tax in 1988. He served on the board of directors of SamTrans and the Transportation Authority.