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Millbrae BART failure should be a lesson for VTA

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  • 7/4 SJ Mercury
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 4, 2004
      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
      Clara.

      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
      East Bay.

      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.

      Taxpayer subsidy

      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
      had expected.

      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
      trouble.

      "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
      Clara station.

      Projection questions

      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
      <http://titles.cambridge.org/catalogue.asp?isbn=0521009464>
      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
      costly.

      "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.

      Sidebar
      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
      <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/11630> (charmingly
      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
      <http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=gun7jvzqkie.fsf%40bolt.sonic.net>
      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.]
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