Excess Baggage: The Forgotten Costs of the BART SFO Extension

Taking mass transit to the airport is convenient. But taking mass transit to the airport when you didn't even mean to? That's transcendent.

Anyone jolted out of a dream and into a nightmare after awakening when his or her BART train shudders to a halt at SFO likely isn't immediately grateful. Yet, prior to 2003, the equivalent inadvertent airport voyage would have required multiple somnambulistic transfers from one form of transport to another.

So, this is progress.

Between labor strife, trigger-happy policing, and excrement-clogged escalators, BART hasn't always been a model agency of late. But, in the jingle department, it's come up aces: "BART — and you're there." Your humble narrator once discovered just how true this is after waking up from a post-celebratory 1 a.m. nap to find himself at the airport. Convenient, whether you like it or not.

It has been 10 years since BART opened its SFO airport extension, an anniversary the transit agency is gaily celebrating via billboards and fetes. The extension is, unsurprisingly, presented as an unmitigated good. And for those eagerly zipping to and from the airport, it largely is. They're thinking about the exciting trip to come, or are thankful to be back home. They're not focusing on piddling things like massive cost overruns and epic delays. They're not contemplating the consequences of wildly optimistic ridership projections ensuring profitability — when the opposite came true.

When you're on the BART airport extension, you don't really see the people tooling slowly around down below. But they see you. And, perversely, some of the worst-off among them are subsidizing your ride.

It's a serious thing to liken BART's financial planning strategy to a Ponzi scheme. It's more serious when the one doing the likening is the sitting president of BART's board of directors.

But Tom Radulovich makes a pretty convincing case: Cash projected to flow from one system extension was earmarked to fund another, with cash from that funding another, and so on. San Mateo County voters bought in, and overwhelmingly approved a sales tax to funnel hundreds of millions of South Bay dollars toward BART extensions in the East Bay (and nothing toward the crumbling core system, incidentally). In return, San Mateo's transit agency, SamTrans, would be rewarded with the SFO extension — which was promoted as being all but entirely funded by the Feds and a surefire moneymaker from Day One.

Well, that sounds just too good to be true! But that's the thing about Ponzi schemes: They are. And someone's always left holding the bag.

This was a large bag.

A major infrastructure project lurching wildly over budget is like a magic trick consisting of pulling a rabbit out of a rabbit hutch. So we'll spare you the arcana regarding the BART SFO extension's predictable overruns (rejiggering the line at great expense to put it underground due to noise concerns — in the necropolis of Colma — was eye-opening, though).

In the end, which came two years late, a project at the outset pegged at not quite $1.2 billion came in at around $1.6 billion. The massive overrun — some $382 million — was taken from local sources. All told, local coffers were hit to the tune of $650 million.

That's a lot of money. But what was more notable is who was made to pay. Much of the funds were sucked away from BART's regular service — meaning the needs of 9-to-5 workaday commuters were neglected in favor of airport travelers. "Riders of the core system lost," says Radulovich. "We told them ... you're not going to subsidize this extension with your fare dollars. We broke that promise."

They're not putting that on the 10-year anniversary billboards.

So, the extension cost a king's ransom more than promised, and Bay Area sources expecting the Feds to pick up the check were made to divert hundreds of millions of dollars away from local transit needs. But the SFO extension was still a guaranteed moneymaker from Day One, right? You've got to spend money to make money — right?

Perhaps. You can also spend money to start losing money prodigiously.

In retrospect, the projected ridership numbers crafted to assure all parties the airport extension would be instantaneously profitable read more like marketing than analysis. Predictions of 68,000 riders by 2010 were met by actual ridership in that year of 35,534. As a result, the biggest loser in this deal was SamTrans — and, of course, the riders who depend on it still.

Rather than being handed a rail extension toted as a cash machine, SamTrans was suddenly responsible for stoking a money-burning furnace. And, after losing millions of dollars down that furnace, SamTrans and BART essentially divorced in 2007. Like most divorces, it was acrimonious. And expensive.

The Peninsula transit system kissed away a $72 million loan to BART, as well as a $32 million capital "swap." And, like any divorce enmeshed in real estate transactions, the pain was amortized.

SamTrans continues to send BART more than $1 million a year in sales tax money. Its budget indicates it's still in hock over the BART extension to the tune of $125 million.

This is a steep price for the fleeting privilege of losing tons of money operating a rail line. And the ones paying for it — today, and long into the future — are SamTrans' transit-dependent riders.

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2 comments
Eric Carlson
Eric Carlson

good article. but it assumes any transit line "pays for itself' ---article might have mentioned the 'soak the sucker' (as if that sucker is not, in fact us) surcharge to get to SFO. ---Might have detailed SamTrans fares over the years in question, just to fill in how the riders are getting zapped.

Rich Cairney
Rich Cairney

Bonus points for using the word 'somnabulistic'.

 
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