Capsule history of BART SFO extension
- Published Sunday, June 15, 2003, in the Contra Contra Times
SFO's train comes in
By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
We've squirmed for years like children in the back seat, asking, "Are
we there yet?"
More than 30 years after BART hired an engineer to design it, the
agency will open an 8.7-mile extension to the San Francisco
International Airport and the Peninsula.
The curious public may visit during an open house Saturday and
officially ride starting next Sunday.
To quote the Beatles, who released this song the year before BART
carried its first rider, it's been a long and winding road.
No other Bay Area public works project, except perhaps the replacement
eastern span of the Bay Bridge, has overcome greater obstacles.
It survived decades of political infighting, corporate greed, millions
of dollars in cost overruns, litigious neighbors, snakes and even an
attack by the powerful airline industry.
But the extension also produced the Bay Area's first regional rail
expansion treaty, which funded BART extensions to Pittsburg and
Dublin. It funneled $750 million in federal dollars into California
and employed hundreds of people.
Not least, the $1.48 billion line will link the Peninsula and the Bay
Area's largest airport -- the nation's fifth-busiest -- directly to
Tracing the extension's triple-decade journey, the Times interviewed
men and women who played a part in its timeline and asked them to
share their stories.
Their tales reveal how easily this project might never have been
*** Larry Dahms, former BART extensions planner and retired executive
director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission
In the 1960s, BART predicted its trains would be so popular that
extensions would pop out of the ground like dandelions.
So, the agency hired engineer Larry Dahms to plan its new lines. Using
federal planning dollars, Dahms unveiled in 1972 an extension plan to
take BART from Daly City through the airport.
Political support never took root and the plan sat dormant for 15
But by the late 1980s, San Mateo County made serious extension
overtures and inadvertently triggered a political maelstrom.
How could BART extend outside the district when taxpaying east Alameda
and Contra Costa residents still lacked service, demanded outraged
East Bay officials.
Three congressional leaders, including Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez,
blocked federal funds.
Dahms, who had become the Metropolitan Transportation Commission
executive director, invited his new employer to the party.
"We pleaded with Miller, 'Here's a chance for the Bay Area to get
federal money. Give us time to put together a win-win deal that
everyone can support,'" Dahms said.
In four months, Dahms helped broker the Bay Area's first regional rail
expansion blueprint, Resolution 1876.
The $4 billion plan offered Bay Area officials a compromise that would
stick for nearly 15 years.
Under its terms, San Mateo County agreed to pay BART $200 million,
which helped fund east Alameda and Contra Costa extensions.
In return, the Bay Area formally declared the BART airport extension
its top candidate for $750 million in federal dollars.
This permitted Bay Area elected officials to deliver, for the most
part, a united message to Congress, which significantly improved their
reception in Washington.
"The entire Bay Area delegation stuck with it and that was absolutely
critical," Dahms said.
*** Stephen Weir, former Metropolitan Transportation commissioner, now
Contra Costa County clerk-recorder
Stephen Weir recalls the day in 1987 he lost his temper.
He served at the time as chairman of a commission committee where a
San Mateo County supervisor had presented a plan to extend BART to the
"I'd had it," Weir said. "We were set up."
Weir holed up with the supervisor and commission staff, munched on
tuna sandwiches and haggled. Ultimately, Resolution 1876 emerged.
Among Weir's contributions, he insisted that construction on the East
Bay extensions proceed roughly at the same time as the airport line
and he added $50 million to their budgets.
Ironically, the Pittsburg and Dublin lines opened far sooner than the
airport extension, largely because BART used local rather than federal
"Resolution 1876 was a tough sell in Contra Costa County," Weir
said. "I got my teeth kicked in quite a few times. But it worked."
*** Quentin Kopp, former state senator from San Francisco, Senate
Transportation Commission chairman and Metropolitan Transportation
Commission chairman, now a San Mateo County Superior Court judge
Without Quentin Kopp, BART probably would not have an airport station.
In 1992, powerful Bay Area leaders, including then-Assembly Speaker
Willie Brown, endorsed a station west of Highway 101 where BART and
CalTrain riders would transfer to a people-mover.
"To my horror, they proposed to put the BART station 1 1/2 miles from
the airport and force everyone to transfer," Kopp said. "To make it
worse, they wanted to put the station in the middle of wetlands
populated with endangered garter snakes and red-legged frogs."
He raised $200,000, launched a signature drive and placed Proposition
I on the June 1994 ballot.
The measure required city officials to do everything possible to
locate a BART station within the airport terminal area.
In a bruising campaign, voters overwhelmingly endorsed Prop. I and
nixed a competing proposition placed on the ballot by five San
Francisco supervisors and funded by the airlines.
Kopp recently toured the new airport station, took the five-minute
walk to the domestic ticket counters and pronounced it satisfactory.
"I'm pleased that it has turned out to be exactly what I promised my
constituents," Kopp said.
*** Dan Richard, BART director from Walnut Creek
Newly elected BART Director Dan Richard spoke harshly during his first
meeting with then-San Francisco Airport Director Louis Turpen.
"I think you are trying to cheat my constituents by forcing them to
get off BART 1 1/2 miles from the airport where they will have to sit
around and wait for the Toonerville Trolley to show up," Richard
recalled from the 1994 encounter.
[BATN note: Richard now supports "toonerville trolley" solutions at
Oakland and San Jose airports.]
It set the tone for Richard's three-year battle with airport and
At the conclusion of tense talks with Turpen and the San Francisco
Airport Commission, Richard won support for a station just outside the
international terminal's front door.
But in the end, the airlines had the last word.
Theories abound about why the airlines disliked the project.
Some believe the airlines wanted BART to trigger development west of
Highway 101. Others point to the fact that parking charges help defray
In fact, neither appears to have been the cause of the dispute.
The airlines, said Richard and others, feared a financial concession
in San Francisco might trigger interest among other airports seeking
cash to build mass transit links.
Airlines take intense fiscal interest in airport budgets because
whatever airports cannot raise through concessions, parking or other
charges, they collect in landing fees.
The powerful airline lobby persuaded congressional leaders to mandate
a settlement between BART and the airlines.
In the infamous 1997 Valentine's Day meeting in San Francisco Mayor
Willie Brown's office, United Airlines CEO Gerald Greenwald outlined
* The airport pays no more than $200 million toward construction.
* BART pays $2.5 million annual rent for 50 years.
* Airline workers receive a 25 percent fare discount.
In other words, BART will eventually repay every dime.
"It was one of the worst displays of corporate greed and arrogance I
have ever seen," Richard said. "But we had no choice. We had to cut a
deal or lose this project."
Richard didn't know it, but the project would face even greater peril.
*** Dorothy Dugger, BART deputy general manager
By early 1997, time had become the enemy.
Airport officials intended to seek bids for the new $2.5 billion
international terminal complex and needed to know whether to include
BART had met Congress' conditions but still did not possess a full
funding grant agreement. It's a promise that the U.S. Department of
Transportation will pay BART $750 million.
BART desperately needed the grant to reassure the airport, borrow
money and start construction.
Bay Area elected leaders and transportation officials begged
then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater to sign.
But the Republicans controlled Congress and they disliked paying for
Clinton administration projects.
As the single most expensive item on the Rail Starts list and a
booster project for California Democrats, it landed squarely in the
cross hairs of then-Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Once again, Bay Area delegates called or wrote letters, including
U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.,
and Reps. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo.
Months went by and no one budged.
In the waning days before the June deadline to submit grant requests
to Congress, Dorothy Dugger and Larry Dahms noticed that Slater was
scheduled to speak at an upcoming U.S. Conference of Mayors in San
They finagled a few minutes to talk with him.
"We told him that we had met all the conditions that had been asked of
us," Dugger said. "We needed that full funding grant agreement. If the
airport had started construction without us, it would have been very
difficult to go back."
Slater signed it June 30, 1997.
BART celebrated, but Congress had the last laugh.
The Department of Transportation has no money. Congress writes the
checks each year in a grueling appropriations process.
The federal government has never reneged on a grant.
But until 2001, the yearly earmark fell substantially below the grant
schedule, which contributed to the next challenge: red ink.
*** Steve Heminger and Randy Rentschler, executive director and
legislative affairs director, Metropolitan Transportation Commission
By the time BART snagged the federal grant, Steve Heminger and Randy
Rentschler had logged substantial time on the extension.
Along with their mentor Larry Dahms, the men helped mediate Resolution
1876 and spent long hours coddling local officials and lobbying
Congress. It had been a long grind.
When the extension plunged into a budget hole in late 1997, the
Metropolitan Transportation Commission sat down at the table again.
Congress had failed to hand out the money at the levels spelled out in
the grant so BART lacked adequate cash to sustain construction.
At the same time, the Bay Area's construction and real estate market
had climbed into the stratosphere. Construction bids came in 20
percent higher than estimates. Land values along the alignment
doubled. Costs soared $363 million.
"We had to fill the hole or we didn't have a project," Heminger said.
"And we had to fill it in California because we were clearly not going
to get any more federal money," Rentschler added.
The men helped persuade the state, BART and the San Mateo
Transportation Authority to contribute.
For the first time, the commission sold bonds against bridge
tolls. This generated millions of dollars and kept construction on
Once again, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission lassoed the
dragon that guards the treasure.
[BATN note: Once again, MTC robbed other systems' funding to
fill BART deficits.]
*** James Van Epps, BART extension project manager
The dragon was under control but building a train through eight
cemeteries, four towns and into an airport conjured its own beasts.
Construction had to stop during funerals. In downtown San Bruno, work
took place within 25 feet of proprietors' front doors and CalTrain
tracks. Endangered snakes and frogs populated the airport construction
Enter James Van Epps, the Gen. Tommy Franks of the extension and a
30-year Army Corps of Engineers veteran.
It's not written down, but the extension staff knows Van Epps' creed:
Surrender is not an option.
Van Epps routinely convened summits in the project war room in
Millbrae where he tackled disputes and engineering problems. He walked
the line once a week, clocking 30 miles a month.
By the time it was over, Van Epps helped execute 119 separate
agreements with entities along the alignment such as cities, utility
companies, cemeteries and business owners.
"I feel such a sense of pride that I was a part of the team that
accomplished this project," he said.
If Van Epps had a bad day, it was probably April 3, 2000.
Workers found a flattened San Francisco garter snake on the
construction site, the victim of a speeding truck.
Regulators shut down the work site for nine days.
It's a violation of the law to kill endangered species such as San
Francisco garter snakes and California red-legged frogs.
"There's nothing quite like having a California Fish and Game officer
hold up a dead San Francisco garter snake in a Ziploc bag and say,
'We're delivering this to the U.S. Marshal's office' to get your
attention," Van Epps said.
*** Sam McGinnis, Cal State Hayward herpetologist and the extension's
biological monitoring manager
If it hadn't been for Sam McGinnis, BART may have never survived the
He designed the protection system that contractors used when they
built the aerial guideways that carry trains over the wetlands and to
the airport where the snakes and frogs call home.
Crews fenced off the work area, trapped the critters and relocated
them or housed them until they could be released back in the
area. McGinnis' students later restored the ponds and vegetation.
The snakes didn't always cooperate, though. "Stalag 17"-style, they
burrowed under the fences. Similarly, some workers disregarded the 10
mph speed limit.
It was only a matter of time before a snake wriggled into the path of
The shutdown order of April 2000 equaled being "taken in the back room
and getting the bare-bottom spanking," said McGinnis.
The punishment worked.
Under threat of a shutdown, BART and the contractor vigorously policed
In the end, they lost six snakes to construction, all of them
attributable to human carelessness, McGinnis said.
"This project is a good example that the Endangered Species Act can
work and does work, even in the case of massive projects such as this
one," McGinnis said.
*** Tom Margro, BART general manager
Before long, the public will forget how long it took or how much it
cost and ride BART to the airport as though they have always done so.
Tom Margro won't have the same luxury.
The agency has appealed a jury's $27 million award in a lawsuit filed
by the owners of a San Bruno shopping center on the grounds that BART
would hurt its business.
This is the same firm that recently announced plans to demolish the
Tanforan mall and rebuild to take advantage of the new BART station.
"It's a travesty," Margro said. "This is the public's money we're
Speaking of taxpayers' dollars, at a time when the clamor for
extensions to San Jose, Livermore and Antioch escalates, Margro must
also remind Congress to finish paying for the airport line.
The federal government still owes BART $280 million.
The only difference now is that when Margro flies to Washington, D.C.,
he can take BART to the airport.
Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers transportation and growth. Reach her at
925-945-4773 or lvorderb@....