Millbrae BART failure should be a lesson for VTA
- Published Sunday, July 4, 2004, in the San Jose Mercury News
S.F. Airport BART woes a concern for S.J. line
Low ridership forcing taxpayers to pitch in
By Renee Koury
Commuters were supposed to flock to the new BART extension in San
Mateo County, buying enough tickets to help pay for the transit
system's next big expansion to the South Bay.
But a year after opening, the new line that drops riders at San
Francisco International Airport and links up with Caltrain has
attracted only half of its projected ridership, forcing taxpayers to
pick up millions of dollars in operating costs.
That experience raises the question of whether San Mateo County's
problems will be repeated in the South Bay, where a civil grand jury
has already recommended suspending the proposed 16.3-mile connection
from Fremont into Santa Clara County because it threatens to drain
money from other projects.
Riders up north were supposed to provide more than lessons for the Bay
Area Rapid Transit District's push to downtown San Jose and Santa
Ticket sales on the $1.5 billion extension from Colma to Millbrae were
supposed to contribute $145 million toward the cost of extending BART
to Warm Springs in southern Alameda County -- the first stretch of the
extension to San Jose. But transportation officials now must ask the
state or federal governments for more help for that crucial leg.
Will do homework
"We have to look at what happened there because it could happen to
us," said Don Gage, chairman of the Valley Transportation Authority,
the transit agency pushing to bring BART to the South Bay. "Sometimes
when you want something real bad, you don't do your homework that
well, but we're not letting that happen."
South Bay leaders say their projections make no illusions about BART
being profitable. A 2001 VTA report said fares and other revenue
would cover just more than half of the cost to run the extension.
Taxpayers would pick up the rest.
San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and BART boosters sold voters in 2000 on a
half-cent sales tax to help build and operate the $4.2 billion
extension, which they called a must to conquer traffic woes.
San Mateo County's ridership projections were calculated in 1990 -- 10
years before calculations were made for the San Jose extension -- when
regional planners were forecasting robust job growth in the Bay Area.
The San Mateo County extension opened with great fanfare in June 2003,
hailed as the first to allow riders to switch between Caltrain and
BART -- a connection that would allow riders from the South Bay and
Peninsula to continue on to San Francisco's Financial District or the
Similar plans in the South Bay call for BART to connect with Caltrain
stations in downtown San Jose and Santa Clara, completing the transit
loop around the bay.
But only 25,000 riders are using BART's new stations in San Mateo
County on the average day -- half of what planners forecast. In its
first year, the system lost $21.7 million, and San Mateo County
taxpayers are shouldering $18.1 million of that shortfall.
Planners say the faltering economy had a lot to do with the drop-off.
They say free parking and more trains to the airport will raise daily
ridership by 20 percent in the coming year, to more than 29,000
passengers, and reduce the subsidy to $8 million.
But the experience in San Mateo County is sobering for transit
boosters. [BATN suggests that "transit boosters" were the ones
opposing BART extension: it is political and concrete lobbies,
unconcerned with actual transit use as long as huge amounts of money
are spent, who are behind these scams.]
BART planned for Millbrae -- with its Caltrain connection -- to be an
instant success, drawing nearly twice as many riders as Colma, the
next most popular Peninsula station. But the hulking Millbrae station
echoes with emptiness, averaging one rider for every four that BART
Some riders complained it's impractical to switch trains, especially
without a ticket that works for both BART and Caltrain. And Caltrain
has cut the South Bay-to-San Francisco rush-hour commute with its Baby
Bullet express service.
Airport riders say using BART to San Francisco's airport can turn into
"You have to make three connections, from Caltrain to BART to the Air
Train," said Jeanne Hardebeck, a 33-year-old Menlo Park woman who used
the airport's new train that takes travelers from BART around the
terminals. "Every time you do that, you have to wait in between and
that takes a lot of time." [BATN notes that this problem was
identified a decade in advance.]
In the South Bay, planners declared that a proposal to bring BART to
Mineta San Jose International Airport would be too expensive, and
instead are proposing a tram that shuttles passengers from the Santa
The faulty projections for success in San Mateo County don't surprise
Tom Rubin, a transit consultant and former chief financial officer for
the Southern California Rapid Transit District.
"The people who make the projections start out with the result in
mind and will change the model to get the desired result," said
Rubin, who cites a 1989 Department of Transportation study that shows
transit planners sometimes exaggerate ridership projections and
lowball cost estimates to win federal funding.
[BATN's favorite reference continues to be the book
"Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition" by Bent Flyvbjerg,
Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter
Flyvbjerg's paper "Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects:
Error or Lie?" <http://www.plan.aau.dk/~flyvbjerg/JAPAASPUBLISHED.pdf>
is a useful and extremely apropos distallation; find more of his
publications at <http://www.plan.aau.dk/~flyvbjerg/pub.htm>]
South Bay leaders insist their projections are based on the latest
figures for growth, although those figures relied in part on data
produced by the Association of Bay Area Governments in 2000, before
Santa Clara County lost more than 200,000 jobs.
Before the sales-tax campaign in 2000, the VTA declared BART to the
South Bay would attract 78,000 riders by 2020. This spring, in a more
detailed analysis required for federal funding, figures based on 2025
projections showed ridership at 83,585 riders. [BATN notes that
BART's Millbrae extension "predictions" showed similar
politically-determined trends in the late 1980s to mid 1990s as the
decision to build the line was rammed through.]
But a Mercury News examination of the data found the latest
projections also indicated that two out of three seats would be empty
on the average BART train from southern Alameda County and rush-hour
trains would be only two-thirds full, raising questions about how much
long-term relief BART would bring.
With the hit on the economy and with the sales-tax scheme falling
short, the VTA plans to meet in August and October to study how much
the extension will cost and where it can get the money.
Too early to tell?
It's too early to call the San Mateo County extension a failure --
especially during the Bay Area's worst recession in decades, backers
say. [BATN notes that the economy is larger today and employment is
higher than it was whend the fraudulent BART ridership "predictions"
were made. The backers of the extension were simply lying, and
continue to do so.]
But Los Altos City Councilman David Casas, a VTA board member who says
the extension is too costly, said the San Mateo County experience
sends up a clear warning of how projections can prove false and
"We should fully examine what occurred in San Mateo and what kinds of
assumptions they made," he said, "so that we don't make the same
mistakes in San Jose."
Contact Renee Koury at rkoury@... or (650) 688-7598.
Extension ridership versus prediction
Station/July03 Prediction/July 03 actual/June04 prediction/June04 actual
Millbrae 15981 4684 [29%] 20265 5290 [26% of "prediction"]]
SF Airport 6569 6498 [99%] 8330 6279 [76%]
5 stations 39554 24648 [62%] 50155 25372 [51%]
[BATN notes that BART continues to retroactively and deliberately
misleadingly account for ridership to and from the Colma station,
which opened in February 1996, as part of the "extension ridership"
for the line south of Colma which opened in June 2003. The aim, of
course, is to try to make the shortfall in extension ridership look
8000 or so average weekday riders less bad than it is in fact.
There are in fact four stations on the extension, not five.
BATN also notes that BART was extraordinarily coy about releasing
any sort of ridership predictions immediately prior to the opening
of the extension -- in contrast to its free way with numbers while
attempting to secure funding for it --, going so far as to have an
official spokesperson claim on 21 April 2003
headlined "Busiest new BART station to be Millbrae -- not SFO")
that "No projections for the first months or year of operation have
been produced." Quite the admission for a $1.8bn project!
Given that BART's "predictions" of ridership appear to only being
published after their target dates, it takes effort not to suspect
that the agency is even more incompetent and dishonest than even the
above figures indicate.]
[BATN: See also
for more extension ridership data and for numerous examples that
anybody half-way honest can estimate BART extension ridership better
than consultants and employees and politicans on the take from BART.]