Sunday, May 14, 2006

LOSING OUR WAY TO THE AIRPORT--Comments on a big and disastrous public transportation investment.


Vol. 40, No. 4, July 1999


Peter Lydon, IGS Associate

In both their political and administrative functions, governments sustain themselves in relation to their societies by making correct decisions and undermine themselves by making wrong ones. What "correct" and "incorrect" mean, of course, is subject to infinite debate, but Barbara Tuchman's five cases in her marvelous "March of Folly" are rough and ready examples of getting things wrong. Enough bad decisions eventually produce a situation like that of 1991 when the Soviet government really didn't exist anymore. The moral is that every government has to earn its living every day. The Great Accountant doesn't, of course, come every day to settle the balance, but too many bad days in a stretch are still not good.

This old civil servant, who shudders at the facile anti-government sentiment of recent years, hates to see large-scale blunders by governments. But right now we are in the latter stages of a dramatic case in the Bay Area: BART's extension from Daly City to the San Francisco Airport, a $1.5 billion (of which half is federal) infrastructure investment involving local, regional, state, and federal levels.

The mistake consists in building a new BART special-gauge line on the western side of the San Bruno mountain rather than upgrading the existing Bayshore standard-gauge rail line, now used by Caltrain. This line already passes the airport and, northbound, ends at Fourth and Townsend Streets, a little over a mile short of downtown San Francisco. For roughly the cost of the eight-mile BART extension from Colma to SFO, Caltrain could be extended to the Transbay Terminal in full downtown San Francisco and be connected by a moving sidewalk to the BART and Muni lines under Market Street. Its diesel engines could be replaced with electric motive power, and there would be new lighter, modernized rolling stock, probably on European models.

An upgraded Caltrain, whose trains would look and feel much more like BART, or like Paris' RER, than like its present Iron Age equipment, would reach the airport from downtown in 15-20 minutes, rather than BART's expected 35 minutes. Part of the gain would come from a direct rather than a circuitous route, and part from Caltrain's capacity to run express trains, which BART cannot do.

However, the capacity to mix expresses and locals takes on its real value south of the airport, an area entirely unbenefited by the BART project, where most airport staff live and where Caltrain continues about 40 miles through Silicon Valley to San Jose, the region's largest city. Within the $1.5B investment figure, a Caltrain upgrade would automatically serve about 20 town centers that cluster around the stations of the historical Southern Pacific line. A reasonable initial service level would be about 200 trains a day, which may be compared with Caltrain's present 60 trains, or with the 168 of BART's Concord line. The first upgrading could serve as the foundation for future cost-effective improvements, such as the complete elimination of grade-level crossings, investments in stations (including underground parking), and the construction of energy-efficient transit-linked communities around the stations, a form of city layout that many see as the future of urban development in the United States and even the world. Unlike the BART extension project, improving Caltrain is also complementary with bringing the proposed $20 billion California High Speed Rail into San Francisco from Los Angeles via the Central Valley.

In a nutshell, that's the prosecution's case that the region is making a huge blunder by building BART to SFO. But how did the Bay Area do it?

1. This was an extended drama of time and of changing circumstances. When BART was originally drawn on the map by the famous transportation consultants Parsons, Brinkerhoff in the 1950s, the Bayshore line was an active working railroad. It was busy with freight trains for the then-active Port of San Francisco and the city, and it carried long-distance passengers from Los Angeles, as well as Peninsula commuters, to San Francisco. Parsons legitimately saw that in the '50 s BART could not be piggy-backed onto a fully employed right of way, and so its alignment was drawn west and south to Daly City. However, with the withering of the Port of San Francisco and the shrinkage of rail operations nationwide under the onslaught of the car and the truck, the Bayshore line was used less and less every decade thereafter. But the regional transportation authorities never perceived the opportunities presented by this gradual freeing up of the Bayshore route for new uses.

2. As freight dried up, Southern Pacific came to see the Bayshore line as a money-losing albatross, and after an extended and acrimonious struggle managed to get the state of California take it over in 1980. The state completed devolution of it to a three-county local board in 1992. Composed of representatives of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties, the Peninsula Transit Joint Powers Board (JPB) purchased the physical right of way from SP for a bargain $220 million, with a substantial financial contribution from the state. The JPB hired Amtrak to run about 60 diesel passengers trains a day, primarily to serve commuters, with offpeak service of only one train per hour. The farebox now covers about 43 percent of operating expenses, which run at about $42 million per year, the balance being made up by the three county governments. It was this latter expense to the counties that has dominated the outlook of the JPB's board. When they weren't squabbling over cost-sharing and other conflicts of interest among the three counties, the JPB commissioners saw their old-fashioned railway as a burden and struggled to minimize its expense, rather than seeing its right of way it as a golden opportunity to bring major relief to tightening auto congestion on the Peninsula.

All this, of course, took place in the Age of the Automobile, whose culture and sunk investment grip us all. The county supervisors who served on the JPB apparently thought, and still think despite Caltrain patronage now rising back up to 1950s levels, that nothing really existed except the automobile, nor that other kinds of transportation were worth a serious public effort.

3. On the other hand, the East Bay-dominated, directly elected nine-person board of BART, which included San Franciscans but had no participation from San Mateo or Santa Clara counties, was imbued with self-confidence and expansionism. It has pushed hard since the early eighties for both local and federal funding for extensions of the original 78-mile system. Aspiring to ring the bay via San Jose, BART thought of itself as the regional rail system as well as the leading transportation innovation and most visible collective achievement of the Bay Area since the great bridges were built before World War II. Based on that thriving sense of itself and its role, BART pushed hard and steadily to extend southward from west-lying Daly City to the airport (in addition to its substantial expansion in the East Bay). It achieved the intermediate steps of heavy investment in a train handling facility at Daly City, and a one-station expansion to Colma in the early and middle nineties. Both steps involved complicated contractual arrangements with SamTrans, the transportation agency of San Mateo County, since San Mateo had declined in 1961 to become a part of the BART District, and therefore had to be dealt with as an outsider even as BART's lines pushed into the county.

When the Bay Area, largely through Congressman Norman Mineta, a former San Jose mayor who chaired the House Transportation Committee, began to have assurances of receiving a large federal transit grant in the nineties, BART immediately laid siege to a large part of the prospective money for its extension from Colma to the airport. SFO itself was embarking on a $2+ billion strategic expansion to make itself a principal West Coast hub for the burgeoning long-haul Pacific Rim traffic. Although the airport belongs to the city of San Francisco and is located in San Mateo county, SFO is dominated by the airlines, especially United Airlines, and by the airline-influenced Federal Aviation Administration. It appears to be remarkably uninterested in its ground connections. The airport seemed happy to continue to be reached by the private cars that filled its lucrative parking garages, and determined to spend a minimum of its or the airlines' resources on transit connections to the Bay Area region. In this it was supported by both FAA legislation and rules, and current FAA policy.

4. Under the innovative ISTEA legislation of 1991, the federal government decentralized transportation planning to the states and metropolitan regions. Although the money was heavily federal, this change left the sorting out of transportation investments in the Bay Area to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), without major substantive or technical input from the feds, evidently on the theory that the regional people know their own region best. The MTC, with 16 voting members, is largely composed of persons elected to serve as county supervisors or city council members. Thereafter, they are nominated by their localities for the additional duty of serving on a specialized regional body, such as the MTC. The MTC had a large full-time professional staff, headed by two engineers, Lawrence Dahms and his deputy, William Hein. By the late nineties, Dahms and Hein had been in their jobs for about 20 years each, a much longer tenure than any of the members of the constantly turning-over commission to which they reported.

The MTC's approach to the management of regional private and public transportation, notably in a major 1988 intra-regional sharing out of capital funding known as Resolution 1876, was predominantly a negotiating and coordinative one: the MTC mediated expressed interests of Bay Area localities and other entities, largely on the basis of the vigor and persistence of those representations. Although its staff was nominally crammed with experts, in its task of gatekeeping federal, and to some extent state, funds, many observers believe that the MTC did not aspire to develop a fresh conceptual view of the region, or take the initiative and form its own pro-active independent judgment about what were the important transportation problems, and what were the needed transportation solutions. Rather, the MTC primarily saw itself as disposing among the proposals that were pressed upon it by cities and counties, road interests and transit operators, and overseeing the implementation of a backlog of past commitments.
In this case, the MTC found BART persistently politicking to extend its line from first Daly City, and then Colma, to the airport. The commission found no equivalent comprehensive proposal coming from the JPB to make the connection from San Francisco to the airport, nor for a general upgrade of its line to San Jose. The JPB did propose a downtown extension, but not vigorously, and it accepted meekly being consigned by MTC and the Federal Transit Administration (formerly the Urban Mass Transit Administration—UMTA) to a longer and less lucrative federal funds queue—the Rail Improvements program, rather than New Rail Starts. The process of passing Resolution 1876 in 1988, and then dispensing ISTEA funds was so long and detailed as to make it hard for any participant to stay focused on the main points, but from 1988 onward, BART's SFO extension was officially the region's first priority. The decisive consideration is that at no point in the extended decision making did MTC perceive or decide (1) that an alternative project to BART's west-wandering extension could be put together on the direct Bayshore line, and (2) that the MTC should invest in airport service on cost-effectiveness grounds rather on grounds of the aggressiveness of the proposing organizations. If the MTC had done so, it would have denied the BART pressures and called explicitly upon the JPB, which had the far superior route, to make the comprehensive proposal that the JPB was incapable of initiating on its own.
It is quite possible that the MTC would have had to take initiatives to have the JPB reorganized and to have more dynamic and positive board and staff members brought in, as the Pentagon might reform "by the scruff of the neck" a lagging defense contractor on which it relied, or as General Motors might "shape up" a parts supplier. MTC was so far from being ready to undertake such an intervention that it never explicitly recognized even the need or the possibility of such action. Rather, it became locally, and in relation to Washington, an apologist for the BART extension.

With the MTC's stamp of approval, essentially given on political grounds, but interpreted by others as representing a technical as well as a coordinative judgment, BART to SFO became the region's solution to the problem of linking the airport to the city and the transit network. Under ISTEA, Washington did not feel itself entitled to look seriously behind the regional choice, once it could be given passing marks on certain minimum-standard check-off tests, although even that, in this case, took considerable contrivance. Nor did members of the regional congressional delegation, who collectively became key players in advocating actual authorization and appropriation of the funds, review the project substantively. Once BART's extension got the regional seal of approval from MTC, the entire congressional delegation fell in behind it, despite the fact that the members elected from districts to the south of the airport would have been far better served by a Bayshore/Caltrain solution. As one congressional aide put it, "our job is not to design these projects; our job is to get them funded."

So although the Federal Transit Administration and the congressional delegation can perhaps be faulted for sins of omission, the locus of the breakdown in decision making in this case is at MTC, and the nature of the fault is inadequate definition and analysis of the problem to be solved, leading to inadequate scoping of alternative solutions. Both were based on a reactive and passive pattern not of seeking out the best proposal, but of being ready to endorse the one that was most vigorously and persistently urged. Various forms of politics got more than their due; physical and technical realities got far less analysis and weight than they should have.
We started by talking about the kinds of mistakes that undermine governments. In many countries these can include financial corruption. That is not the case here. There is no imputation of venality, or even of significant processual lapse or abuse; indeed "procedures" were followed almost lovingly and compulsively, at the expense of substance. But did BART have a less than explicit advantage from the fact that the two senior staffers of the MTC were former BART engineers, who had worked on the original building of the BART system in their formative years? One, late in the process, stated his conviction that BART had to go to the airport because, "BART is the regional rail system, period." For him, this doctrinal point, which was really an articulation of BART's own view of itself, evidently had survived the many years since he had left BART, and was impervious to more empirical, on-the-ground cost-benefit realities, even at a strategic level.

5. A major background contributor to BART's costly triumph was the misleading plausibility of its proposal for the general public. To most Bay Area residents, not closely or professionally involved in regional transportation but increasingly irritated at traffic congestion, it seemed as right as rain, and even long overdue, to extend regional rail to the airport as a major new destination. All the more so since BART still benefits from wide civic pride in its sleek, silver-clad image of modernity. The passivity and narrowed vision at the MTC's institutional and professional level were sheltered because BART's airport extension enjoyed the superficial approval of the residents of the region, for whom neither Caltrain nor any other alternative was ever raised in a plausible form. Although most citizens were not BART or even transit riders, the general tax-paying public assumed that since futuristic-flavored BART was good, more BART must be better--and better yet if the feds would pay for most of it.

With no public awareness that Caltrain could go to the airport from downtown in about half the travel time, BART's extension has had general, and even impatient, public support as the region's next big infrastructural step forward. This uninformed popular sentiment was picked up and articulated insistently by state Senator Quentin Kopp, who chaired the Senate Transportation Committee in Sacramento, and by significant regional voices such as the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner newspapers.

So, that is how a big governmental blunder occurred, in our own time and place--right under our noses, so to speak. Without benefit of malice or corruption or oppression, we in the Bay Area have just thrown away a billion dollars of public funds. PAR readers will naturally ask, was it a problem of politics, or political structures?As a regionalist, I'd love to say the error was due to the lack of a metropolitan decision-making forum, since such a forum is undoubtedly both lacking and needed. But in this case a regional transportation institution was in place in the form of the MTC, but just did not do its job. Was the gap at the commission or the staff level? The commission and the commissioners are doubtless the formally responsible parties, but in this case I would say they were let down by their staff, and the key failure was a technical/professional one. The concept of their job among the senior appointed officials was too feeble and vacillating, and the vision of the mandarins was narrow and out of date. As the BART to the airport extension is being dug in the spring of 1999, their complacency remains impregnable. The Bay Area's task of continually remaking itself as a modern, productive, and livable metropolitan city is being worked at far more by its cultural and economic institutions than by its political ones. The perennial uphill job of keeping our region of 6.4 million people up to date and well organized is made considerably steeper by nonperformances from the governmental side such as this one on BART's extension to SFO.

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