The Train to Nowhere?

If you’ve ever taken AirBART from the Coliseum BART Station to the Oakland airport, then you know the service is pretty slow and unimpressive, especially considering the $3 fare each way. So you might think that public transit advocates in and around Oakland would be delighted by BART’s proposal to build a faster connection between the BART station and the airport terminals. Under the plan, the AirBART bus service would be replaced by an elevated people mover that would whisk passengers at a rapid clip from the BART station to the airport. Sounds great, right?

Wrong! The fact that local transportation activists and bloggers seem to be unanimous in their condemnation of BART’s proposal for the Oakland Airport Connector is an indication of how problematic the plan is. To start with, BART would have to borrow $150 million to fund the $522 million project. Yes, this is the same BART that is scheduled to raise fares by over 5% next year, and is threatening that it may have to raise them even more to make up for shortfalls in their budget. So while the citizens of the Bay Area who rely on BART to get around day in and day out are being asked to shell out even more for fares, BART’s directors want the system to go deeper into debt to fund their longtime dream of a people mover that will soar above an East Oakland neighborhood. (Gotta protect those air travellers from the Oakland riffraff!)

You might ask: Well, won’t the train at least provide a top-notch service to passengers, taking them from BART to the terminal quickly and easily? No! While the proposed connector will get from the BART station to the airport much more quickly than AirBART, the $522 million budget will only pay for a single stop at the airport, between the two existing terminals, and on the far side of all the car and bus dropoff lanes. So while passengers will get to the airport quickly, they will end up farther away from the terminals than they currently do with AirBART, which stops at each terminal, and which only requires passengers to cross a couple of lanes of traffic to get to the gate. If they build a third terminal at OAK, as there is talk of doing, then passengers will have to walk even farther from the train to reach it.

On top of those issues, what seems worst about BART’s proposal to me is that they expect to charge passengers $6 each way for the airport connection (that’s on top of the BART fare that they have already paid). That high cost might be defensible if there was no better option as a replacement for AirBART, but in this case, there is another option. In a matter of a few weeks, the local transportation advocacy group TransForm put together a Rapid Bus proposal that would cost a tenth of BART’s proposal, would require no new debt, would be quicker to implement, would serve more people, would be almost as speedy, could pick up passengers near the hotels and businesses on Hegenberger Road if desired, could stop directly in front of each terminal, and best of all, could be absolutely free for passengers, because the money saved by not building an elevated people mover would allow BART to fund operational costs into perpetuity.

It’s frankly pretty sad that a group of activists seem to have put together a more appealing plan in a few weeks than BART was able to put together in decades of planning (an airport connector has been in the works forever; in 2000, Alameda County voters passed a measure to fund a $130 million connector, which has morphed into today’s proposal, which provides worse service than the original proposal at $400 million higher cost—and has lower ridership estimates to boot).

I hope the BART directors don’t underestimate the appeal of a free shuttle from BART to the Airport. $6 might not seem like much in comparison to the cost of a plane ticket, but I think the psychological difference between a free shuttle and a $6 people mover is enormous, especially for the price-sensitive people who are presumably likeliest to use BART to get to the airport in the first place.

I’m notoriously frugal, to the point where I once rode my bike 10 miles to the airport in the pre-dawn darkness, and locked it there for several days, all because BART doesn’t run all night and I was too cheap to pay for a cab or a shuttle. Another time, after returning from a trip, I walked from the airport to work in San Leandro because I didn’t want to wait for a bus, then dish out $1.75 for a ride of only a couple of miles (also, I just like to walk). So I might not be a typical case, but when you charge riders $6 for a 3-mile shuttle, on top of the roughly $2-$6 that they have already paid for bus and BART fare to get to Coliseum BART, you are giving people a pretty big incentive to just skip BART altogether and take a cab or a door-to-door shuttle.

At the last meeting of the BART board in late April, they reluctantly agreed to table the airport connector proposal until tomorrow, in order to study other options more closely (imagine that: studying other options closely before going $150 million deeper into debt). That’s when TransForm leapt into action and produced their counterproposal. If BART opts for the $6 elevated tramway instead of the free high-speed shuttle buses, I suspect it will not be on the merits, but rather because they have had their sights set on a sexy high-speed people mover for decades, and are too blinded by that long dream to weigh the pros and cons of the various options.

Like a lot of other people, I prefer trains to buses for vague, possibly irrational reasons (I basically never take the bus; if I’m crossing the bay, I will take BART, and if I’m staying in the East Bay, then I will usually either walk or ride a bike). So I understand the urge to build a train instead of replacing AirBART with an improved rapid bus service. In this case, however, the activists and bloggers have persuaded me that the costs (both to BART and to its passengers) of building the train in the sky are way too high to justify, especially given the limitations of the service that it would provide. I won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s BART board meeting where they will be deciding whether to go ahead with their grandiose plans, but local transit activists promise to be there in force, and I hope the BART directors are able to set aside their longterm fantasies and pursue a less flashy, but more practical, option instead.

12 Responses to “The Train to Nowhere?”

  1. dto510 says:

    Thanks for your perspective on the Airport Connector. The high fare really is outrageous. I hope you can find time to share your thoughts with the BART Board as well. TransForm has a web form for emailing them all at once.

  2. Carol says:

    When I worked in Glendale I had occasion to take Southwest to OAK and Airbart/BART to the city and vice versa numerous times. I never thought it was particularly slow, and it was ever so much more congenial than negotiating the freeways by car or taxi. What is the need for all this speed anyway? It’s a terrible form of addiction.

  3. PRE says:

    Any time a self described “activist” gets involved in something you know they’ll end up just making the problem worse. The OAC is expensive, but in BART as in life, you get what you pay for. Carol, try the AirBART shuttle at Thanksgiving and come back and we’ll talk.

  4. dc says:

    Carol: I hear you. I often think of this, from an interview with Michael Pollan: “That whole cult of convenience strikes me as a bit of brainwashing. This is how you sell products: ‘This will save you time.’ Time for what? Well, so you can watch ads for more products.” He was talking about food, of course, but it applies to a lot of things. But the fact is that a lot of people are obsessed with time and efficiency, and we need to somehow get them to see public transportation as an appealing way to get to the airport. Speeding up the trip is one way to do it. Charging them 6 bucks for a 3 mile ride on a people mover, I suspect, will keep them in their cars.

    PRE: That’s not much of an argument. As I said in the post, I generally like trains better than buses, so if you have any real case for why the elevated people mover will be worth the enormous cost to BART’s budget and to passengers, then I’m open to persuasion, but a generalized slam against “activists” and a silly assertion that the OAC must be better than the rapid bus because it costs so much more isn’t likely to convince anyone.

    Seriously, if anyone reading this has a more substantive argument for why the OAC is worth borrowing $150 million and charging passengers 6 bucks for, then I’d love to hear it. The more I hear specious non-arguments like “you get what you pay for,” the more convinced I am that TransForm is correct.

  5. Steve R says:

    One reason I suppor the OAC is due to my very positive experience with the connector at JFK and also at SFO and other airports. There’s a huge psychological barrior to getting on a bus that is perceived to be slower (commenters have already mentioned irrationality…) which will greatly reduce the number of passengers willing to take BART to OAK. Keep in mind we’re planning for the long-term–20 to 50 years out. Population, development, and traffic will most likely increase in the area causing a “rapid bus” to become slower and slower. Additionally, the airport will most likely expand in the coming decades, increasing the amount of traffic heading to the airport. By the way, I agree that the airport station should be closer to the entrance–that’s the main disadvantage to the OAC.

  6. dc says:

    Steve R: Passenger numbers at OAK have been falling in recent years, not rising. They may rise again in the future, but they may not. With high-speed rail to Southern California on the horizon and the likelihood of the end of the era of cheap oil in the next few decades, it seems like quite a gamble to spend half a billion dollars on. As the Tribune pointed out in today’s editorial against the OAC, BART’s own ridership estimates for the OAC in 2020 were once projected to be 13,540 daily, but have been revised downward to 4,670. Since the bus option would require much less new infrastructure, it is much less of a risk if the airport doesn’t end up expanding in coming decades.

    I agree that some people will probably hear the word “bus” and be reluctant to use BART. On the other hand, the reason they had to raise AirBART’s fare to $3 a couple of years ago was that ridership was higher than projected, so they had to increase the number of buses, and ultimately replace the aging fleet, in order to meet the demand. If a rapid bus was faster, had hassle-free boarding, and was totally free, then ridership would surely go up even further. And it’s important to remember that the question isn’t whether we think a people mover would be better than RapidBART. The question is whether people mover would be so much better than RapidBART that it justifies paying 10 times the money for it on the front end (burdening BART with $150m in debt when it is already struggling fiscally) and costing riders $6 instead of being free.

    I can understand why people would prefer to ride an elevated people mover instead of a bus on city streets. I might actually prefer it myself, if the costs were identical. But I honestly can’t understand why people think that the people mover will be so much better that it justifies the high cost to BART and to individual passengers.

    I’ve had good experiences with the people movers at JFK and SFO too, but the AirTrain at JFK costs (if I’m remembering correctly) $5, and if there were a free shuttle bus right next to it making the same route at close to the same speed, don’t you think most people would opt for the free bus instead of the $5 train? And I don’t see the parallels between the SFO people mover and the OAC. For one thing, SFO’s people mover serves all of the terminals and the BART station and long-term parking. And more importantly, SFO’s people mover doesn’t require any fare. I think it’s astonishing that BART wants to charge passengers more just for the shuttle from the BART station to Oakland airport ($6) than they charge for my entire trip from my home in Oakland all the way to SFO, which is already pretty damn expensive ($5.65 from Lake Merritt). One trip is about 3 miles, and the other is about 30.

    In any case, this debate may be academic, since the BART board just voted 7-1 to take out the 150 million dollar loan. If they now try to raise fares on transit-dependent Bay Area residents beyond the previously scheduled increase in 2010, pleading fiscal deficits, then I’m going to be seriously pissed off.

  7. Steve R says:

    Needless to say, I’m happy with the vote, although I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this debate. Hopefully they’ll be smart enough to redesign the airport station. The $5 fare for the JFK connector is inconsequential for most air travelers, I’d venture to guess, and I’m sure the number of passengers riding BART to SFO has increased by multiples since BART extended the line to the airport. They had a shuttle from Daly City, remember–I was one of the few people who used to take it.

  8. dc says:

    Steve R.: No, we haven’t heard the last of it. I read last night that the next step is getting the Port of Oakland (which operates the airport) to pitch in $44 million to the project. The problem is that the Port is also flat broke. What is BART’s proposed solution? Add a $10 fee to every plane ticket out of OAK in order to get the money! You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

    $6 might seem inconsequential for a lot of travellers, but as I said in the post, if you are trying to decide between a cab, a door-to-door shuttle, or public transit, then making the public transit ride 2 to 4 times as expensive as it would have been is a real disincentive. People don’t make decisions in vacuums—they choose between different options. (Which reminds me of something I forgot to discuss in the post, which is the opportunity costs involved in this project. The BART directors keep talking about how it will create jobs. Well, yes, but it also would have created jobs to extend BART deeper into the East Bay to serve commuters from Livermore, or to extend BART further toward San Jose, or to…you get the point. The question isn’t just whether this project is worth the money, but whether this project is a better use of the money than other possible uses.)

    And lastly, I don’t want to debate the nitty gritty of this ad nauseam, but comparing a BART extension that goes all the way to SFO’s international terminal with the OAC is apples to oranges. Of course the BART extension to SFO (at a marginal increase in fare) is enormously preferable for travelers over a shuttle bus from Daly City (or a SamTrans bus from downtown, which is what I used to do sometimes). But if the shuttle bus from Daly City had been replaced by an elevated people mover from Daly City, requiring people to transfer AND pay a whopping 6 dollars for the privilege, then I don’t think ridership would have increased so dramatically.

  9. ruth gutmann says:

    Here in Boston there is a perfectly satisfactory shuttle (bus) with room for your luggage, stops at all the Logan terminals and, invariably, patient drivers who tell their passengers, perhaps foreigners, where they will have to get off to make their flights. It is (still) free.

    People should keep pointing out not only that this plan is being put forward at the wrong time (or are they counting on stimulus dollars?), but their goal of greater efficiency is not met when they intend to drop people to find their own way to individual terminals. That’s where buses have it over trains no matter how we all love the latter.

  10. ng says:

    The shuttle bus at Logan is free, definitely a good service, but it services only the airport stops. Once at the T station people have to pay, and we’ve seen many travelers confused and annoyed trying to figure out what tickets to buy, etc., with few T employees to help out — not a friendly beginning for a visit to Boston. If we want them to come, we should make it easy for them to get here!

  11. dc says:

    ng: you mean people have to pay to get on the actual subway, right? They don’t ever have to pay for the shuttle bus itself at Logan, do they?

    Ruth: There is $70 million of stimulus funds coming to BART for this project, which is what prompted them to revive their train-in-the-sky plans, which had previously been put on hold due to lack of funding. Apparently they figured, “Hey, if we can get $70m from the Feds for this, why not borrow the rest and make our passengers eat the cost?” And it’s important to point out that if BART does NOT build their train-in-the-sky, then the 70m does not go back to Washington—it stays in this region and gets divvied up among the various transit agencies (BART would get 15m). So the argument that they have to build the train-in-the-sky in order to keep those stimulus funds here doesn’t apply.

  12. ng says:

    Right, the shuttle bus is free. My comment was a side issue.

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