BART in Alameda?
A second transbay tube could ease Alameda’s nightmarish traffic and boost Oakland’s economy. And transportation officials are now taking the idea seriously for the first time.
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In the past, BART prioritized extending the system over maintaining and improving its core connection across the bay to San Francisco, said Ratna Amin, transportation policy director for the San Francisco Bay Area Urban Research, or SPUR, group. “We have a long ways to catch up,” Amin said. “We are really embarrassingly behind in planning the second crossing and the next generation of projects in our region.”
But not all transit advocates are as eager for a new transbay tube. Joël Ramos, a director on the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board, believes another underwater crossing is “probably inevitable,” but he wants to make sure every alternative is pursued before the costly project is built. “We need to be doing a whole lot more in every capacity to get people out of cars and into transit and out of this awful traffic that we’re all stuck in,” Ramos said.
Ramos, who is also regional planning director of the Oakland-based nonprofit transit advocacy group TransForm, says there is much the region could do that it is not: for example, dedicating traffic lanes exclusively to bus service or charging for road access during peak hours.
“TransForm believes we can do a lot of things before directing billions of dollars into a second tube,” he said. “The current system we have now is in such need of investment that we really are a long way from being able to afford to build a second crossing.”
But Jim Wunderman, CEO of the influential business lobbying group the Bay Area Council, is positive that another rail crossing of the bay will be sorely needed, sooner rather than later. He said anyone who suggests otherwise is simply wrong.
“The question of whether we should do this isn’t really a question. The question is just when and how and how are we going to pay for it,” Wunderman said. “This is really important. BART is the workhorse of the public transportation system in the Bay Area.”
Still, Wunderman said BART needs to first concentrate on connecting to San Jose, and Caltrain needs to connect to the Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco. He also said the region’s ferry service must be expanded.
But he noted that BART — and the region — should have an alternative route to cross the bay in case the existing tunnel is closed for any reason. “Otherwise, the Bay Area pretty much comes to a stop,” he noted.
Currently, only two tracks connect San Francisco and Oakland, and the entire service is interrupted anytime the tube is closed by mishap or maintenance. A new route could also run trains faster by avoiding BART’s “Y”, the complex and problematic underground interchange near Oakland’s 12th Street and Lake Merritt stations through which all BART trains currently travel at reduced speeds.
And another set of tracks would enable BART to offer 24-hour service, something it can’t do now because the existing tube must be closed nightly for maintenance.
“When I go back to Washington [D.C.] … I’m going to start talking to officials about the necessity for this,” Wunderman said. “Over time, I think this will rise to the top of the priority heap for the Bay Area.”
So where would a new transbay tube go?
To date, plans for potential routes have not gotten much past the cocktail-napkin stage. Transportation officials say it’s still early, although studies are underway.
BART board member Rebecca Saltzman, who represents parts of Oakland and Berkeley, along with Orinda and Moraga in Contra Costa County, said it seems “a given” that a tube would lead to new tracks and stations somewhere in Oakland.
Ellen Smith, BART’s strategic planning manager, added that early work suggests a subway line through Alameda into Oakland is particularly promising given the closeness and position relative to San Francisco.
One thought is that a line could surface in San Francisco near AT&T Park and the Warriors’ new arena, then cross Market Street near Third Street, Smith said. That suggests an eastern landing in Alameda, perhaps at Alameda Point, entering Oakland to the south of the dreaded “Y.” The MTC’s core capacity study actually looked at the potential for a route from Emeryville to San Francisco, but the angle of travel from there was not ideal for serving the South of Market Area, where jobs and housing are increasingly concentrated, Smith said.
Rentschler agreed that there are reasons why a route through Alameda could be attractive, though he added that they don’t necessarily have to do with the city of Alameda itself.
To get any actual BART stations, in fact, Alameda would likely have to make significant land use changes to allow for dense urban development of a kind that does not currently exist on the island, officials said.
“We would look for Alameda to allow much greater density near future rail stations,” Smith said. “We’d have to have a partnership going forward with that community to justify the enormous investment in rail in Alameda.”
BART wants people to be able to walk and bike to stations and does not want to build any more parking lots in urban areas. “We take that seriously,” Smith continued. “Transportation and land use are inextricably linked.”
BART board member Robert Raburn, who represents much of Oakland and all of Alameda, even suggested that a rail line could pass under a locale and not stop if it lacked adequate density potential. “I need to hear a loud chorus of ‘We want BART and everything that BART might entail,’ ” he said.
Amin of SPUR said that only by allowing dense development near transit stations will regional travel patterns improve meaningfully. “If people are just driving many miles and parking at BART, we haven’t reshaped the region,” Amin said.
“The tube is just a tube,” Amin added. “Stations are where you connect and change between systems, where you want to build neighborhoods.”
For its part, Oakland has so far embraced transit-oriented housing near several of its stations (except for Rockridge). Witness the numerous construction cranes in downtown and Uptown and the recent approval of a 25-story development at the MacArthur BART station.
But over the years, Alameda has not always embraced dense new housing. It even has an anti-multifamily-housing initiative covering much of the city that is still on the books: Measure A, passed in 1973.