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January 16, 2007 > Rollin, rollin, rollin...a BART progress report

Rollin, rollin, rollin...a BART progress report

Tom Blalock, BART Director, District 6 answers our questions

TCV: What is the current status of the Warm Springs extension of BART?

Blalock: The Warm Springs project has been below the radar for a while. Recently we received a federal regulatory decision that removed the last barrier for more preparatory work including purchase of remaining right-of-way and further agreements with agencies such as Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), city of Fremont and utilities. Those things are going on now. As soon as we received National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) clearance, we were able to move ahead. By contrast, the city of San Jose doesn't expect their decision of record for about two years. We cannot start construction until they receive approval. We are linked through Measure B financing.

TCV: How about the proposal to build BART to Warm Springs and link to light rail at that point?

Blalock: That never was a solution. Since 1983 when I was Public Works Director for the city (Fremont), we were working on the Fremont/South Bay Corridor Strategy. Similar to an environmental review, we looked at all options. Each time we looked, BART was the desired solution. Santa Clara County went through the same process and considered bringing light rail parallel to BART. This is slower and involves the problem of transferring riders from one system to the other. It is like taking a non-stop plane across the country or, at least, staying on the same plane if it makes a stop versus stopping midway and transferring to another plane.

TCV: What is the present timetable for service beyond the present Fremont station?

Blalock: It is still undetermined. It depends on what VTA does with its record of decision when they receive it. Former [San Jose] Mayor Ron Gonzales and the city of Santa Clara were in favor of a unified BART project but we don't currently have the money to do that. If we were to build in pieces, we could fulfill at least a part of our Measure B obligations.

TCV: Has the possibility of major league baseball in Fremont and football in Santa Clara entered into BART planning?

Blalock: These are pretty much separate although Santa Clara may be planning on BART as an eventual umbilical to its gates. The proposed stadium for the A's is about a mile and a quarter or a half from the future Warm Springs station site - too far to walk. At the other end of Auto Mall, near the railroad tracks, both the Capital Corridor and ACE (Altamont Commuter Express) trains can stop at a platform about one half mile from the stadium. On game days, I am sure special arrangements can be made with existing trains or special trains to accommodate fans. I believe the A's have done studies to assess the possibilities.

TCV: Speaking of connections, is any progress being made on a better connection between BART and the Oakland Airport?

Blalock: This is at the top of the heap! Like most megabuck projects, there is a long lead time. In the case of the Oakland Airport Connector, we are looking at an option to allow private financiers to participate. We have a way under the law to allow this to be done called "design, finance, build, operate and maintain." As soon as you get to the "maintain" part, you run into issues of labor unions and who runs the system. We are looking at this seriously. There is not enough money in state financing to handle all the projects for the Bay Area so we are exploring private financing options.

TCV: Is there any move toward a connector with San Jose International Airport when BART moves south?

Blalock: VTA decided they would solve that issue separately. We have a policy advisory committee made up of VTA board members and Alameda County representatives, BART directors, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty and the mayor of Fremont. We are going through a continuing design process, looking for ways to save money and look at options. A lot of people wanted to let BART run directly to the airport and stop but the city of Santa Clara wasn't in favor of that. Now, the idea is to run out to Santa Clara or to the end of the runways. Connection to the terminal could be accomplished by using a people mover system.

TCV: Is the connection to San Francisco International Airport working well?

Blalock: It is a positive experience, but not what we wanted it to be. If the economy had "tanked" before we finished the environmental review, we might have done things differently. Ridership is not where we want it although over the holidays we had 50,000 passengers per day. Core BART ridership is about 335,000 per day. Those that ride on the airport leg of the system pay a surcharge because it is not part of a "BART county" while in BART counties, part of the sales tax goes toward underwriting fares.

TCV: Is that why riders are required to change trains to go to SFO?

Blalock: Yes. Part of our agreement with San Mateo County requires service limitations: number of trains per day, frequency, routes. We can run south to San Bruno and straight to Millbrae or from San Bruno to the airport. We have track that will run from the airport to Millbrae but low ridership makes it very expensive. Ridership is growing at a decent rate and because we have a surcharge on the airport line, fare box recovery is higher on that line than any other transit system in the Bay Area. BART as a whole is second only to airport extension.

TCV: Will there be a charge for parking at local stations?

Blalock: Yes. Unfortunately, my colleagues have a different viewpoint than I do. There were six votes to make a policy that will consider paid parking when certain conditions are met. In Fremont, we are just about to meet them. Out of 43 stations (some without parking), ten stations were picked to initiate parking fees. Many were on the Concord line and the city council of Berkeley came to us and asked the board to charge for parking. Dublin/Pleasanton line will also have a charge. It is coming, but I think it is the wrong thing to do. Initially BART made several promises including a seat for everyone - this has not been kept - and free parking for everyone. Now, the board has disregarded the parking pledge as well.

TCV: Where else is BART planning to expand?

Blalock: We are planning extensions but they may not be BART technology. All indications are that we will probably be sharing some track, buying right-of-way and running surface level passenger trains. There is huge congestion on I-580 freeway, but transportation planners have looked at a relatively low capture of those folks for BART. Studies show that a surface rail system would be a better choice. The ACE train is slow. Approximately 35,000 workers live in San Joaquin County - and the draw is from a larger area than just that county - and the high for ACE is 1800 passengers in the morning, returning in the evening. They have been as low as 1300 per day which shows that many commuters would rather sit in traffic than use the train.

I am on the ACE Train board and we even have WiFi service, but the commute time is slow, particularly through Niles Canyon. A future saving would be if high speed rail used the Altamont route; tunnels would be necessary that would straighten out the route and save a lot of time. I suspect one public agency would allow another agency to use those rails as long as interference was minimal. That is the light on the horizon. In the meantime, ACE is looking at what they might do to build their own more modest tunnels. With a small passenger volume, the budget will not allow construction of extensive tunnels at hundreds of millions of dollars.

ACE is very sensitive to orders of magnitude and what they can afford. They are forward and running ACE service to Modesto and maybe running along the Dumbarton route when it gets going. They are even thinking of running service through Brentwood. ACE is in the foreground and is working with others such as Capitol Corridor sharing information and rights of way.

TCV: As these services expand, how will technology integrate between them?

Blalock: BART is a closed system with a difference of locomotion, track gauge and wheels construction. BART trains have a steel wheel with an aluminum rim that rides on the steel track. The trains are lightweight and travel quickly which is probably the reason for a wider gauge track for stability.

We currently have San Joaquin County and BART looking at the same track. BART is looking at T-BART which is a diesel electric self-propelled vehicle. We would buy an interest or buy the tracks and make a decent connection to BART.

Each service has its own priorities, but we try to work together. Union Pacific moves freight and that is their top priority. Each of us tries to be cooperative and understand how to facilitate all services.

TCV: Anything else?

Blalock: Comments from members of the BART board indicate that there is sentiment that Warm Springs' time has come. Alameda County Congestion Agency - I am a member - has also picked this project and the Highway 580 corridor as top projects for the coming year. It isn't just the Warm Springs extension that is important, but a need to keep the balance sheet working so we can afford to continue the service we provide. I try to listen carefully and support the major issues to keep BART going. I try not to be just a one issue representative.

During my term, we spent over $1 billion refurbishing the system; $350 million went into rebuilding the cars which saved a lot of money when considering the cost of buying new cars. The cost was a little over $800,000 per car instead of $4 million. We will get another 25 years of use from those cars. We redid elevators and escalators and changed track. Train control is being upgraded to maximize traffic. We are now in the process of seismic retrofitting and have learned a lot from major earthquakes around the world and are putting that information to use.

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