The Boondoggles

Large, publicly-funded projects that consume billions of scarce transportation dollars should do more than just create temporary construction employment. In addition they should invigorate local economies, protect and enhance affected environments and improve life for everyone. With this in mind, it is useful to stop and consider MTC’s 40 year record of presiding over major Bay Area transportation projects.

Project A: The BART Extension to the San Francisco International Airport (SFIA). The originators of the proposal to extend BART from its Colma terminal to SFIA were reportedly the operators of the then failing Tanforan Shopping Center, something that few were aware of at the time. Instead, the public was constantly hammered with the idea that a big city like San Francisco needed its own airport rail service. As is typical of most large Bay Area transportation projects, the cost of BART/SFIA rose from the original estimated price of $1.17 billion to $1.7 billion, an increase of $530 million. And because of the meander through Daly City and the Mission District, the trip from the Millbrae Station via BART to the Montgomery Station in downtown San Francisco today takes at least 18 minutes longer than it does via Caltrain and a Muni bus. As a result of this westerly detour and the inconvenient transfer in Millbrae, the BART extension has failed to come anywhere close to attracting the projected 68,600 riders a day. In fact during Fiscal Year 2013, the line carried less than 40,000 riders a day, many fewer than needed to justify a price tag of $1.7 billion. Taking into account that many of BART’s airport-bound travelers were already using public transit to get there, cost of the BART extension comes to over $425,000 per new rider. At $250 million, BART/SFIA would have been a viable project. At $1.7 billion it was an absurd waste of money.

Project B: The Bay Bridge’s New East Span. The Loma Prieta Earthquake occurred in 1989. It took 24 years, until September 2, 2013, for the new East Span section to open to traffic. In 1998 the estimated price for the replacement structure was $1 billion. Today the project, which has the same traffic-carrying capacity as it did 25 years ago, is expected to cost at least $6.4 billion. Internationally acclaimed bridge designers have stated that with new foundations the old east span could have been seismically upgraded for a total price of less than $2 billion. By opting for the exotic but vastly over-priced self-anchored suspension span, Caltrans and MTC managed to needlessly delay the project by at least 14 years while unnecessarily increasing its cost $5 billion. Needless to add, when billions are wasted, it denies funding to the more deserving projects that actually could improve Bay Area transportation. By anyone’s measure, the new Bay Bridge East Span is costing California’s taxpayers at least three times what it should be costing them.

Project C: The Oakland Airport Connector (OAC). Today a BART passenger is shuttled back and forth between the Coliseum BART station and the Oakland airport via a three-mile bus line. The total one-way trip time takes 12 minutes and costs $3. The replacement OAC, costing over a half a billion dollars, will increase the one-way trip time by three minutes and yet cost twice as much as today's bus ride. According to Transform, a prominent Bay Area advocacy group, by 2025 the new line will attract 5,019 riders a day, just 946 riders a day more than what the existing bus line would be carrying by then. In other words the $550 million OAC will increase ridership by just 23%, resulting in a cost per new rider of $581,000. The OAC allocation represents another destructive diversion of funds away from the projects needed to make legitimate Bay Area transportation improvements.

Project D: The Replacement of Doyle Drive. This project started out as a straightforward seismic upgrade of several sub-standard viaducts in the Presidio of San Francisco between the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco’s Marina District. The price of the project, as set forth in the November 4, 2003 San Francisco Voter’s Handbook was $420 million. But after the vote, the small but ambitious San Francisco County Transportation Authority (San Francisco’s Congestion Management Agency - CMA), managed to gain control of the project and soon began dreaming big dreams. As a result, the 68-foot wide existing Doyle Drive approach to the Bridge morphed into a 148-foot wide, full-fledged freeway. Without adding vehicle carrying-capacity or enhancing the Presidio in any way, the CMA, strongly backed by MTC, managed to turn a legitimate $420 million seismic upgrade into an obtrusive barrier between the Presidio and San Francisco Bay that is destined to cost at least five times what the voters approved.

Project E: San Francisco’s Central Subway. This 1.7 mile light rail line was shown in the November 4, 2003 San Francisco Voter’s Handbook as costing $647 million, a price that has since soared to $1,580 million and destined to go higher still. Equally disturbing is the fact that the project was sold to unsuspecting politicians on the basis of grossly exaggerated ridership projections ranging to 99,000 riders a day. Long after the project gained the political momentum it needed to plow ahead, this rosy ridership claim was quietly dropped to just 35,100 riders a day, only 5,000 of which will be new to Muni. Capital cost per new rider: $315,600. High operating costs are another problem. After the draft EIR was published in mid-2008, representatives of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) local sponsor of the project incessantly claimed that its efficient new subway was going to save Muni $23.8 million a year in operating costs by 2030. This turned out to be a gross exaggeration. In fact, as was quietly acknowledged by the SFMTA to the federal government in 2010, by 2030 the Central Subway will actually be costing Muni an extra $15.1 million a year in operating costs.

Project F: The Proposed BART Extension to Livermore. The 1.3 mile BART extension from the Dublin Station to Vasco Road at the eastern end of Alameda County is projected to cost $3.83 billion and yet carry only 31,900 riders a day, a figure that itself appears to be optimistic. A BART extension to Livermore would divert more Bay Area transportation capital needed to address Bay Area transportation problems on yet another pet project, this time reportedly being promoted to benefit a group of Livermore developers. The low density eastern end of Alameda County could be well served by a rapid bus network at a fraction of the cost of a BART extension

Project G: MTC’s HOT Lane Program. “HOT lanes” are established to give motorists who are willing and able to pay surcharges the opportunity to bypass congested stretches of freeway. MTC’s $6 billion HOT lane program would incorporate over 300 new lane miles of freeway, thereby encouraging more Bay Area freeway driving and ultimately more Bay Area traffic congestion everywhere in the Region.