Borenstein: Newsom helps fund second BART tube district will never need

Transit officials and Gov. Gavin Newsom should stop wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money planning for a second transbay BART tunnel that the rail system will never need.

With BART weekday ridership numbers still far less than half of pre-pandemic levels, the agency cannot afford to keep its existing service running, is begging the Legislature for a temporary bailout and plans to press for a regional ballot measure in 2026 to raise new revenue.

To spend public money on planning for a second crossing of San Francisco Bay when BART lacks ridership for the existing system is financial folly. Especially when the funds are coming from the state government, which faces its own whopping budget shortfall, approaching $30 billion.

Yet that’s exactly what the governor is doing. And BART is only too happy to be a part of this financial waste and even skew the facts to enable it.

The governor and BART last week announced that the state has awarded $11.3 million for planning for the second transbay train crossing. The money officially will go to the Link21 Program, run by BART and Capitol Corridor to improve rail service in 21 counties from the northern San Joaquin Valley to the Monterey Bay area. Make no mistake: BART is driving the Link21 train.

The money is part of $690 million in grants handed out by the California State Transportation Agency from money in the current fiscal year budget, which was allocated last year when state revenues were looking much rosier.

One would think that, with state lawmakers facing tough choices on cuts for the upcoming fiscal year, the Newsom administration would be selective about how it hands out money. But that’s not the case.

The idea of a second transbay BART crossing from Oakland to San Francisco has been discussed for decades. The idea was that it would enable the transit district to run more trains across the bay and accommodate more passengers. The price tag back in 2002 was pegged at $7 billion to $12 billion. In today’s dollars, that would be about $12 billion to $20 billion.

In 2016, the Bay Area Council business group put out a study touting a new BART crossing. It was understandable given that, at the time, coming out of the Great Recession, average weekday transbay ridership had increased 39% from 2009 to 2015. The group doubled down on the idea in January 2021, before it was clear how much shifting work habits would indefinitely hurt BART ridership.

But today, says the group’s spokesperson, Rufus Jeffris, the analysis would look a lot different. “We believe investments (operational and infrastructure) in safety, cleanliness and better service are critical right now. And should be prioritized above a lot of other things,” he said in an email.

The days of BART growth are over: Weekday ridership is just 37% of what it was before the pandemic. The state’s population boom has ended, and growth is leveling off. San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are losing, not gaining, population.

Critical for BART transbay ridership, there is no sign that workers will return to San Francisco offices in anywhere near pre-pandemic numbers. The city’s office vacancy rate keeps reaching new record highs, and the numbers will likely only get worse as more long-term leases expire.

But none of that stopped BART from fudging the facts and the Newsom administration from swallowing the deceptions without a critical eye.

In its application for the funding, Link21 referenced the Bay Area Council study that the business group acknowledges is outdated. Link21 also claimed that, as the pandemic shutdowns end, “travel constraints in the Transbay Corridor are quickly returning. Given future population and job growth, as well as projected travel patterns, investments in new transit options across the corridor are just as important today as they were in 2019.”

While Bay Bridge commute traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels, BART trains have gobs of excess transbay passenger capacity. As for the claim that population, job growth and travel patterns support the case for a second BART tube, the numbers show just the opposite.

In the decades ahead, BART probably will never return to its pre-pandemic levels. It’s time to face reality. The governor should stop enabling this boondoggle. And BART should focus on providing clean, safe, reliable service that entices at least some riders back to the trains already running.

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