BART’s Broken Promise

Forty years after it betrayed East Contra Costa County, BART's "solution" could be the East Bay's greatest boondoggle.

Mark Scalia should have it made. He lives in a spacious Antioch home that he picked up for a song, and his son attends a brand-new school free of crime and blight. He’s got a solid union delivery gig for United Parcel Service, his wife works nearby selling real estate, and no one on his block locks their car doors. But check out what he’s gotta do to make it all possible.

Scalia drags himself out of bed every weekday morning at four, about three hours before his family opens their eyes. His buddy picks him up at five, and together, under the stars, they commute via Highway 4 to 242, then I-680, Highway 24, the Bay Bridge, and on to San Francisco. “I kiss my wife when I leave so she knows it’s me going out the door,” Scalia says. “When my kids were younger, I joke that they’d wake up on the weekends and ask, ‘Mommy, who is that man sleeping next to you?'”

Typically the drive takes just an hour at that time of day, but Scalia keeps his radio tuned to the traffic report, in case some fool rear-ends a car on Highway 4 or mucks up the Caldecott Tunnel. Unless they’re forced to resort to surface streets, they usually arrive at the UPS package center in San Francisco’s Mission District by about six. But their shift doesn’t start for two more hours, so Scalia and his colleague tip the car seats back, pull blankets over themselves when necessary, and sleep for another two hours. They could both work a standard eight hours, but there’s really no point to that either; by the time they got off work at four, the bridge would already be gridlocked, and they’d be in stop-and-go for at least two hours. So instead they each work several hours of overtime and Scalia usually gets home around nine, which leaves him with maybe two hours with his wife and kids before sack time at eleven. Five hours later, the whole process starts over again.

It’s a hell of a life. And it’s all thanks to Bay Area Rapid Transit.

In the early ’60s, when the counties of San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa created the BART system, the taxpaying citizens of then-remote eastern Contra Costa County were promised that they would be first in line for any future extensions. After forty years of taxes and traffic jams, and one airport extension later, Antioch’s still waiting for that BART line; even San Jose has jumped ahead of it on BART’s list. Feeling some remorse for four decades of neglect and bad faith, two weeks ago BART’s directors voted to give Antioch what they apparently regard as the next best thing to a BART line. It’s dubbed “eBART,” a diesel freight line designed to shunt commuters from Brentwood and points east to the Martinez BART station. But it will never work. And at a projected cost of $839 million, it could be the greatest boondoggle in the East Bay’s history.

As Eastern Contra Costa County’s representative on the first BART board of directors, Nello Bianco had a ringside seat to the backroom deals that stole Antioch’s birthright. He spent the next 25 years trying to get the board to live up to the promise it made to his constituents. Because construction of the BART system was exclusively financed by local taxes, supervisors from each of the three counties had to put the tax measure on the ballot. In Contra Costa County, the supes were deadlocked over whether to bring the issue to the voters. Bianco claims the mayors of San Francisco and Oakland threw a bone to the lone holdout: Get this thing on the ballot and East County would be first in line for the next new BART station.

But it was a sham, Bianco claims, a formality BART planned to ignore once it broke ground on the tracks, which originally stopped at Concord. From day one, Bianco says, the big boys at BART were headed straight for San Francisco International Airport, and the hicks in the sticks would just have to wait.

“When I got on the BART board in ’69, it was obvious that they had no intention of honoring that obligation,” Bianco says. “In fact, they concentrated on the extension to the airport. … It was just more dramatic and romantic to go to the airport than to go to Pittsburg and Antioch. I never opposed the airport extension, but I said over and over that we could do both the airport and Pittsburg and Antioch. … The people of Pittsburg and Antioch own BART — they paid for it — not San Mateo and Santa Clara. But the clout was with the big cities.”

Bianco spent the ’70s telling his story to anyone who would listen — but no one took him seriously. Sacramento politicians couldn’t believe that the East County would someday be filled with thriving cities connected to the Bay Area by a host of complex social and economic links. When they looked at Pittsburg and Antioch, all they saw was a dead military base and a bump in the road for cattle ranchers.

While East County taxpayers continued to foot the bill for stations they would never see, Bianco says, the leaders of San Mateo County cynically exploited the knowledge that BART would ultimately head to the airport as a way to get four intermediary stations on the cheap. Eventually, Bianco forced BART to accept a compromise. For every station in San Mateo County, BART also had to build one in eastern Alameda or Contra Costa counties. But the lobbying and threatened lawsuits took so many years that BART missed a golden opportunity. Back in the ’70s, the federal government was handing out millions of dollars in transportation subsidies, and the cost of extending the BART lines was a mere $25 million per mile. Now, the feds are nowhere in sight, and the cost of construction has swelled to at least $100 million per mile.

Bianco’s account makes a nice tale, perfectly packaged to set up Antioch as the victim of a historic injustice at the hands of Big City machine politicians. And it has the added benefit of being mostly true. But there also is a little more to it than that.

On paper, there’s no denying that the BART board sold East County a bill of goods. But BART costs money, lots and lots of it. Perhaps you’ve heard about BART’s projected $20 million deficit — the fare increases, cutbacks in rush-hour transfers, and “reserved” parking fees? You don’t get money without riders, who have declined over the last two years from 340,000 to 305,000 a day. Nothing promises more riders than an airport extension. According to BART’s projections, as many as 70,000 people a day will take BART to the airport by 2010. With fares ranging from $4.70 in downtown San Francisco to $6.90 if coming from Pittsburg, that’s a huge cash influx for a perpetually ailing system. The San Jose line promises to link up even more riders, perhaps finally putting BART on the stable footing it needs.

And beyond Bianco’s efforts on behalf of the East County, the fact is that his constituents never fought too hard for the extension. Back in 1988, the Antioch city council rubber-stamped a massive growth binge, approving 24,000 new housing units that would double the city’s population in twenty years. This unparalleled growth — and the taxes required to finance it — prompted a voter revolt that brought a staunchly antigrowth faction to the council. Throughout the late ’90s, the city council was torn by a vindictive civil war, as councilmembers hurled personal invective at one another and almost shut off streetlights in parts of the city that refused to approve a special tax. Antioch was so busy fighting over how much it should grow that it never took the time to figure out the best way to do so.

Even today, as these swelling suburbs dump thousands of cars a day onto area highways, Antioch is still divided over how integrated into the larger cosmopolitan Bay Area it wants to be. For years, the lure of Antioch has been more than the cheap housing — it’s also been a refuge for residents who cringe at the homelessness, blight, and crime that comes with life in the big city. Antioch is the place where the Bay Area goes to sleep at night, secure that its car stereo will still be there in the morning. Extending BART out to the ‘burbs could mean bringing a piece of the big city into Antioch. Even Mark Scalia, whose commute nightmare is surely the stuff of legend, gets a little squeamish about rubbing elbows with the urban underclass. “BART’s too nasty all the time,” he says. “You have people urinating all over themselves and vomiting, and the smell permeates the cars. … I understand they’re probably homeless and don’t have a place to stay, but that’s not what public transportation’s supposed to be about.”

Such ambivalence couldn’t possibly compete with the spirited 2000 campaign that San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales waged to bring BART to his city. Gonzales got the voters of Santa Clara County to approve tax measures to finance the extension, and persuaded Governor Gray Davis that a $765 million slab of transportation pork would buy a lot of votes come 2002. Faced with a sophisticated lobbying campaign, as well as the obvious logic of extending BART to the epicenter of the tech economy, no one in East County could stop the train from reaching San Jose first. Antioch just wasn’t hungry enough.

But Antioch’s residents have to have BART. Not because BART owes it to them — although obviously it does. Not because Antioch fought long and hard for it — because it obviously didn’t. Antioch has to have a BART station simply because life in the East County will soon be impossible without one.

Ten years ago, Highway 4 had a genuine rush hour, the kind of rush hour that actually lasted sixty minutes. How long does the evening rush hour last today? Try almost four hours. And it’s continually getting worse. If anyone doubts the demand for BART in the ‘burbs, take a look at the ridership numbers. Every day, more than 12,000 people get on at the Pittsburg station, and most of them head into Oakland or San Francisco to work. That’s almost three times as many people as in Concord or Richmond. Even though the Pittsburg station is located in perhaps the worst possible site, crammed into the Highway 4 median on the outskirts of town, the parking lot is jammed to capacity every morning.

East County commuters love their cars — that’s why they moved out there in the first place. It takes a lot to get them off the highways and onto public transportation, and the last thing BART should do is make itself even less convenient for them. And that’s why this eBART idea is such folly. BART has proposed building a diesel train system connecting Antioch to the BART line via some abandoned Union Pacific freight rails. But does anyone really expect Antioch commuters to drive to a freight station, wait God knows how long for the train, transfer to BART, wait some more, and then transfer to Muni or AC Transit? Does anyone really think this will overcome a fascination with cars that even four-hour traffic jams can’t beat? When it comes to linking the ‘burbs with the job centers of San Francisco and Oakland, nothing but BART will ever do.

For all his revulsion with some of its more indigent riders, Mark Scalia actually used to take BART to San Francisco, driving from Antioch to the nearby Pittsburg station. As time went by, the highway’s increasing congestion added another fifteen minutes to his commute every year, until he finally decided that since he was already on the highway, he might as well drive straight to San Francisco. For people whose commitment to public transportation is already so fragile, nothing less than a straight shot to San Francisco will persuade them to give BART a second chance.

After all, it’s not as if this eBART fantasy is radically cheaper. The Oakland Tribune recently trumpeted the eBART solution as costing a “fraction” of what it will take to extend BART to Antioch, but that’s only true if 48 percent is your idea of a fraction. The fact is that this eBART line will cost $431 million to get to Antioch, and $839 million to extend all the way to Byron. Since the BART board hasn’t decided whether the eBART system is a replacement for BART or merely an interim step until it builds the full $900 million Antioch extension, BART could end up spending that money building the eBART line and then scrap the service when the time comes to extend BART to Antioch. And there’s still no guarantee that anyone will use it.

Of course, the state’s massive new budget crisis could jeopardize even high-profile projects like the San Jose extension, and the eBART proposal may wind up just another victim of hard times. And granted, extending BART lines to the ‘burbs only encourages sprawl, and there’s no urban center in Antioch to fulfill BART’s new mandate to encourage “transit villages” like the one going up in Fruitvale. But East County sprawl is already upon us, and the only way to mitigate its worst attribute — traffic — is with a real, honest-to-God BART line. Unless you like sucking up fumes and listening to four hours of Howard Stern.

Previous articleWe’re a Happy Family
Next articleHair of the Dog
clear sky
56.2 ° F
56.2 °
56.2 °
68 %
0 %
67 °
68 °
68 °
68 °
66 °