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09.08.10

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Mess Transit

What so funny about smarter, cheaper and faster?

By Juliane Poirier


In the few (grim) years I worked as a government employee, I watched firsthand how otherwise nice and even smart people act weirdly when in official roles. They will consistently spend public money wastefully on projects that sound sensible at first, but quickly become more complex and convoluted. If the decision makers are of the elected sort, it can be even worse. Fearful of looking stupid or incompetent, these people will throw more and more money at a poorly conceived project, a response that, of course, appears to the rest of us as stupid and incompetent. Because it is.

The only thing that seems to stop money-wasting decisions is intervention from citizens who, because they are on the outside of the locked-in thinking, are free to say, "Wait a minute! Let's reconsider this."

Last week, there was a budget vote on a proposal that would impact Bay Area users of BART and the Oakland Airport. Based on observation—mine and a Marin County supervisor's—I have not been holding my breath for a sensible outcome.

A number of Bay Area citizens are saying "Please reconsider!" to those voting on whether Alameda County's transportation budget should be thrown at the Oakland airport BART-extension project, proposed at $130 million and now up to half a billion dollars. Because it's not too late to rethink the entire concept, advocacy groups would like the BART board members to consider an alternative project that would cost so much less that there would be money left over to use on additional transportation improvements. A debt could be avoided as well.

Earlier this year, the watchdog group TransForm (formerly known as TALC, the Transportation and Land Use Coalition) hired Kittelson & Associates, independent bus and rail transit planners based in Portland, to study alternatives to the current plan for linking BART to the Oakland airport. Their findings, released last week, showed that a proposed RapidBART plan would be cheaper by $350 million than the present plans, and would also be faster, more direct and cost half the individual fare per passenger—$3 a ride instead of $6.

Marin County supervisor Steve Kinsey, who serves on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, told the Bohemian that he's read the report and finds it hopeful. "The TransForm report," said Kinsey, "is very positive for rapid transit." But Kinsey has his own observations of government decision-making. "The issue for us, primarily," he says, "is that the decision maker for this is really the elected board of BART, which has consistently elected to enter into debt to have a rail connector. I think the report could be helpful in illustrating that there really is [the possibility for] a significant savings."

"It's not too late," says John Knox White, program director for TransForm. "The battle is not over with [this] vote." Knox White claims that although the BART connector project suffers from complacency and project tunnel vision, the public can have an impact through phone calls and email directed to the board.

"Right now, we haven't signed any contracts," says Knox White. "We have been asking people to email commissioners to tell them this is an issue. Even though it's an Alameda County project, it's going to impact the whole Bay Area."

The existing airport service is a bus that runs every 10 minutes between the Oakland Airport and the Coliseum BART station. If a rail connection is the goal, wouldn't it be better to build one that saves $350 million and is, well, superior? I guess if we email the BART commissioners and ask, we might get an answer.

"If you're remodeling your closet," Knox White says, "and it's a $5,000 project, when the contractor tells you it's going to cost $95,000 and require an addition to your home, most of us would stop and rethink the project. This BART connector project needs rethinking."

For more information on taking action, visit www.transformca.org. Marin's MTC representative is Steve Kinsey. 415.499.7331. skinsey@co.marin.ca.us.


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