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Oakland transit totally screwed, as usual

Transit advocates had reason to cheer on Election Day. California voters endorsed high-speed rail, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure intended to halt Bus Rapid Transit, and East Bay voters ignored the noise about Van Hools and approved a transit tax to make up for state budget cuts. But as the euphoria fades, it’s increasingly clear that Oakland could be really screwed by post-election transportation decisions made by local bodies.

As I wrote before the election, the particular SF-to-LA route chosen by the High-Speed Rail Authority bypasses the largest part of the Bay Area, the East Bay, which also precludes service to Sacramento and Modesto without a costly extension. Many of my friends argued that this isn’t really a big deal for Oakland (though of course we would benefit from hosting the HSR hub), because downtown SF is just as convenient for us as the Coliseum. However, that’s not true for most East Bay residents.

Be that as it may, immediately after the bond passed, HSR Authority boardmember and former SF Supervisor Quentin Kopp said that the costs of the service may not be covered by the bond (surprise), and that service may not go to downtown SF but instead to the Fourth and Townsend Caltrain station. Aside from drawing attention to the fact that locating a regional system in San Francisco is unnecessarily expensive, this stop is far less convenient for everyone in the Bay Area outside the Caltrain corridor. East Bay trippers will now have to take BART to DTSF, then transfer to light-rail. Aside from adding a mode change, which is off-putting, the Fourth St light-rail line does not have anything close to the capacity to host the number of passengers carried by HSR. The prospect of overcrowded light-rail trains and a long schlep to a sketchy part of SF makes High-Speed Rail less appealing against the constant flights out of the Oakland Airport, a conveniently BART-available destination, especially with the forthcoming rail link.

Except the kibosh is on the OAK light-rail line. Currently BART operates a bus service between the Coliseum BART station and the airport. The bus operates in mixed-flow lanes and is often held up by traffic. The bus is extraordinarily popular, even turning a profit, and creating a rail connection between BART and the airport has been on the drawing board since at least 2001. However, the airport connector project has secured only $295m in regional transit funds, and with a significant private-sector partnership precluded by the credit crunch, BART is giving up. Meanwhile, SF continues to receive enormous regional subsidies for its airport connector, part of a $1.6b BART extension that has vastly underperformed ridership expectations and so continues to receive outsized subsidies.

Of course, with the now-probable passage of Santa Clara County’s Measure B, Oakland and the region will be on the hook for billions of dollars for a BART expansion justified by ridership projections so fantastic as to constitute lying. Combined with Governor Schwarzenegger’s push to build capital improvements while further cutting operating funds from unglamorous but cost-effective transit services like the bus, the East Bay is in for a very tough transit future.

One outlet for trapped transit users is market-based public transportation. Strangely, Oakland lacks jitneys and limousines, leaving us dependant on a taxi duopoly. With the paucity of taxi service inspiring a public outcry, city staff has reformed the taxi ordinance and will propose issuing new permits. Unfortunately, rather than issuing the 200 permits needed to make up for 30 years of a service freeze, city staff is only going to ask for 11 new permits. A San Francisco operator has said at public hearings that they would start a new service in Oakland if they can get at least 20 permits. City policy will instead maintain the duopoly, leaving Oaklanders bereft of service. At the state level, in regional transportation priorities, and even at the level of local transportation regulation, Oakland is totally screwed. As usual.

Posted in actransit, airport, bart, california, citycouncil, oakland, san francisco, san jose, taxis, transportation.

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14 Responses

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  1. Max Allstadt says


    Can you clarify how Measure B makes Oaklanders pay? I thought is was a tax in Santa Clara County. Is the problem that Sacramento is somehow forced to match funds in some way?

  2. dto510 says

    Besides state and federal funds, Alameda County subsidizes BART’s operating expenses (which are what get hit if ridership projects aren’t met) through annual payments and a variety of taxes, including the current County transportation tax, ACTIA. Intra-Oakland commuters actually pay more fare than what it costs the system to carry them, while the further away from Oakland the riders are, the more it costs the system (so my $1.50 fare to Rockridge is actually subsidizing someone’s $3.80 fare to Pleasanton). Meanwhile, Oakland has no station between Downtown and Fruitvale, no dedicated airport connection, and a neglected train link to San Jose and Sacramento (owned by BART).

  3. Andrew says

    “no station between Downtown and Fruitvale”

    What does that mean?

  4. dto510 says

    It means that BART underserves Oakland. There are more than thirty blocks of densely-populated neighborhoods between the Lake Merritt and Fruitvale stations, an even longer stretch than between the 19th St and MacArthur (40th St) stations. BRT is the solution to that problem, but while Oakland is subsidizing San Jose’s transit, they aren’t helping us with AC Transit.

  5. Max Allstadt says

    Not that it would happen ever, but there is totally room to build an additional BART station between 19th and MacArthur. At ground level no less. The midpoint between the two stations happens right about where the tracks emerge from the ground, but before they’re elevated.

    If Northgate grows, and if and when near-West Oakland gets some help (2012?), it would be sooooo easy to do an open air, ground level BART stop between 19th and MacArthur.

  6. dto510 says

    Nope, the tracks are at a steep grade, there can’t be a station. That’s the same reason why there can’t be an infill station near Jack London Square.

  7. Max Allstadt says

    Really? I’ve jumped the fence and walked along the tracks right where they exit the ground between Northgate and MLK. (Yeah, I know DTO, your lawful mind probably doesn’t like that one bit) They didn’t seem so steep. How steep is too steep? Can’t they be flattened out at some point? Way to think ahead, BART. I guess BuRT will have to pick up the slack.

    In other news, Jessie Douglas Allen-Taylor has an article in the Berkeley Daily Planet today entitled “Bus Rapid Transit Demands Greater Public Discussion”. Isn’t a vote on KK where the general public voted by a 76.7% margin an acceptable end to the discussion? I feel like reciting what Ferris Beuller says after the credits rolled. “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home.”

  8. dto510 says

    Think about it: a station is ten cars long. How much of a grade can there be before the station is at a crazy angle?

    Yeah, BRT opponents won’t give up. Putting it to a vote, and getting more media attention than anything else on the Berkeley ballot, certainly qualifies as adequate attention. People know about the project, and they support it. End of story.

  9. Joanna says

    I thought the reason the JLS station was out was a) money, and b) because they’d have to move the electric substation. Okay, and c) the grade, because that’s where it goes underground. But the grade issue seems silly – couldn’t they just underground it further up the tracks towards West Oakland?

    I lived in San Bruno when they first started building BART over there and they were able to build it underground…


  10. dto510 says

    Joanna, changing the incline of the track would require closing down the entire BART system for the duration of construction. Not possible. Sad but true, we’re stuck with the bad decades-old design.

  11. Chuck says

    dto, Max — the maximum design grade allowed for a platform is either 1 or 1.5%. I read this in the BART planning docs for a potential 30th St. / Mission infill station. The tracks coming out of the tunnel are a good deal steeper than that; the options would be either move the new station uptown til the tracks level off enough, or extend the subway to 30th-ish St. in Oakland. Would be a lot of digging to make that happen, and I’m not sure how far away from MacArthur they could actually build the station, again due to the grade issue.

  12. bikerider says

    The reason Santa Clara Measure B will utterly__screw__ Alameda county is because we will now be responsible for the Warm Springs portion of the project.

    In other words: $1 BILLION in construction costs to build BART in an EXISTING rail ROW that could be easily upgraded to standard conventional rail standards (and compatible with any future HSR) at 1/10 or even 1/100 of the cost.

  13. dto510 says

    Bikerider, you’re right, Alameda County is on the hook for a station that wouldn’t make sense except to bring the system closer to San Jose.

    Was upgrading the existing rail considered as part of the EIR? I can’t imagine how any study could possibly justify the enormous expense of building BART when we already have a passenger rail connection under BART’s purview.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Transit expansion doesn’t always make sense « Living in the O linked to this post on December 16, 2008

    [...] argued last month that Oakland transit is totally screwed, but I don’t think the picture is quite so bleak. After all, BRT is finally moving along, now [...]