The Grid

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama)
The Capitol
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sen. Shelby:
As chairman for the Senate subcommittee responsible for doling out federal tax dollars for commuter train projects, you have some big decisions to make. One involves the rail system called Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART.

Last week, two local elected bodies -- San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and BART's board of directors -- authorized a deal to pay for an extension of the current BART system into San Francisco International Airport and beyond. The project includes the construction of four new train stations and is incredibly stupid and wasteful.

The extension, which BART says it would complete by the year 2001 for a price of $1.2 billion, turns on your willingness to commit $750 million in federal funds to the project. The national press says you have life-and-death power over the project, and because $750 million is a lot of money (approximately 20 percent of the federal money available for mass transit during the next six years), we wanted to be sure you knew the whole idiotic score before you cut any federal money loose.

Initially, the BART extension was meant to allow train travel to the airport and to link BART with a second commuter rail system, called Caltrain. It was hoped that this meshing of commuter systems would ease freeway congestion south of San Francisco.

As the extension plan moved through the bureaucratic maze, however, local politicians tacked two outlandish and expensive features onto it. Those features will cost taxpayers an extra $250 million, at minimum, and will make life easier for only a tiny segment of airline travelers (that is, business fliers who are catching international flights).

Those features will, of course, create a real estate redevelopment opportunity on 16 acres of dirt in a tiny town called Millbrae. We weren't sure that a senator from Alabama would have much interest in aiding real estate speculation in California. But we knew the entire San Francisco political and business establishments would be descending on you in coming weeks, extolling the virtues of BART-to-SFO and pushing you to show them the money.

So we thought we'd start from the beginning and give you all the reasons why you should laugh at the San Franciscans, throw them out of your office, and kill this deal dead.

We'll give the best reason first. BART to the airport isn't really a transportation project, Sen. Shelby. It's the fulfillment of a sleazy back-room deal between a newspaper publisher with megalomania problems and an overambitious low-level politician who wanted to become an overambitious midlevel politician.

Here's how it happened.
Back in 1986, there was a San Francisco supervisor named Quentin Kopp who was locked in a tough three-way battle for a state Senate seat. The race was thought to be exceedingly close. To win, Kopp felt he needed the endorsement of Citizen Kane's grandson, Will Hearst III, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner. Hearst was willing to make the endorsement. But that quid was going to cost Kopp a quo: He had to agree to support a pet project of the Examiner, hence and forevermore.

Quentin Kopp had to agree to support taking BART directly into the San Francisco International Airport.

Kopp did so. But don't take our word for it. Listen to what one person who attended the editorial board meeting where Kopp won the endorsement says: "It wasn't Kopp's big issue. It was the Examiner's big issue. ... Quentin knew that if he didn't agree to BART into the airport that the chances were he wouldn't get the paper's endorsement."

Kopp won the Senate seat, and over the years, his deal with Hearst took on its own weather -- and became a political obsession for Kopp. For a lawmaker without a demonstrable legacy, BART-to-SFO would be Kopp's proverbial statue in the park. He could point to the rails, the station at the airport, and say, "I did that."

But state Sen. Kopp had a problem. No matter how you penciled the numbers or ran the rails, taking BART into the airport itself made absolutely no sense. It did make sense to build a station outside the airport, where BART and the other Bay Area commuter rail system, Caltrain, could connect. If that station were built, both BART and Caltrain could be linked to the airport via an internal airport light-rail system that was already in the works.

This approach, senator, made so much sense it was almost beautiful. It required less track, less right of way, fewer expensive rail switches, and at least one less train station. And it would serve just as many train riders, while saving taxpayers at least $250 million over the plan to put a BART station inside the airport's international terminal.

But anything short of taking BART directly into the airport would satisfy neither Sen. Kopp's deal with Rosebud's grandson, nor what had fast become the senator's political manifest destiny.

So, Kopp did what other California politicians do when reason and facts are against them. He manipulated.

By 1994, state Sen. Quentin Kopp had become something of a political power in west San Francisco and to the south, down the Peninsula. As such, he sponsored a ballot measure known as Proposition I. It asked voters a seemingly simple question: Would you back extending BART directly into the airport, if the extension didn't cost the city a dime? Not surprisingly, the voters said, "Hell, yes."

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