Without a doubt the greatest challenges facing BART are expanding core capacity and maintaining a good state of repair. At the same time, however, the Bay Area’s regional transit network is far from complete: some projects, like Caltrain electrification and BART to Silicon Valley, are moving forward, but other deserving corridors have been overlooked. One corridor in need of high capacity transit lies in West Contra Costa County, where the West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee (WCCTAC), is currently examining options for transit expansions.
Most of West Contra Costa County is not currently served by fast, frequent transit service. Beyond the area’s three BART stations in Richmond and El Cerrito, only San Pablo Avenue and McDonald Avenue are served by frequent all-day transit service – a key challenge given the area’s high concentrations of transit-dependent households. Commute-oriented services by WestCat and Golden Gate Transit are successful, but do not provide sufficient flexibility to serve a range of trips and schedules. Meanwhile, I-80 remains one of the most congested corridors in the Bay Area during peak and off-peak hours.
Most of West County currently lacks the density and land use mix to support higher capacity transit service, but the area is growing. The gigantic Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay will reshape Richmond’s waterfront, while development is expected to intensify around Downtown Richmond, San Pablo/Contra Costa College, Hilltop Mall, and the Hercules waterfront. There is a unique window of opportunity to expand rapid transit service to these areas as this growth occurs.
The study is evaluating a range of alternatives that focus on improving mobility within West County, as well as north-south and east-west connections. Preliminary alternatives include:
• Express bus service along I-80 to Hercules and I-580 to Marin County
• Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along San Pablo Avenue/McDonald Avenue and/or 23rd Street (connecting to the planned ferry terminal)
• Commuter Rail or Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) service along the Union Pacific or BNSF tracks to Hercules and/or Martinez with a possible extension to Oakland
• BART extensions to Hercules via Richmond or El Cerrito Del Norte along I-80 corridor (where DMUs are also under consideration)
While it’s too early to tell what direction the preferred alternatives will go, WCCTAC’s initial reports include some interesting takeaways and omissions:
• Express bus service is likely to offer the most cost-effective improvement to regional transit service. However, express bus alternatives must go beyond typical park-and-ride services to support transit-oriented communities. Additionally, WCCTAC should consider additional connections to the Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay and a consolidated I-80 regional bus service extending to Solano and Napa Counties to offer truly transformative express bus service akin to the Silver Line in Los Angeles.
• BRT improvements along San Pablo Avenue, McDonald Avenue, and 23rd Street seem worthwhile regardless of other preferred alternatives, as these projects will provide valuable improvements to local transit service and serve future growth.
• Expanded rail service along the existing Union Pacific/Capitol Corridor right of way is not under consideration due to trackway constraints and vulnerability to sea level rise. These conclusions call into question the City of Hercules’ plans for an intermodal transit center along the Hercules waterfront.
• While DMU service along existing Union Pacific and BNSF tracks has some technical and track capacity constraints, it offers some of the most intriguing opportunities not only within West County, but extending to Oakland as well. However, if this alternative is pursued, WCCTAC should not overlook opportunities for additional stations serving Priority Development Areas along the Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, North Richmond/San Pablo, and Pinole (where stations are strangely omitted in initial plans).
• BART extensions pose considerable challenges associated with cost and core capacity of the system. Recent extensions to Silicon Valley and SFO, and considerations of an extension to Livermore, suggest that BART technology is cost-ineffective along corridors without extremely high ridership demand. The I-80 corridor makes little sense for a BART extension as it would isolate Richmond station and would have limited accessibility due to the close proximity of the freeway. An extension from Richmond Station makes a little more sense, but once again, WCCTAC’s proposed station spacing misses opportunities to serve the Contra Costa College/San Pablo area. In order to serve the highest ridership demand, a two-station extension from Richmond to Contra Costa College and a redeveloped mixed-use Hilltop Mall could make the most sense.
• Ferry service is not a serious option under consideration as it provides limited service for a niche travel market. Richmond will reopen ferry service by 2018, but this service will only serve about 1,000 riders per day by 2035 (much less than most bus lines in the City). Ferry service to Hercules would have even less of an impact – only about 500 riders per day by 2035 at a cost of about $95 per passenger trip.
Regardless of the alternatives chosen to move forward, it is critical that transit improvements provide frequent, all-day service with seamless connections between modes to serve a range of trips and schedules. In order to achieve these goals, it is imperative that WCCTAC focuses on service and connectivity as opposed to a particular transit technology – a key pitfall of past studies for Bart to Livermore and BART to Silicon Valley. West County offers exciting opportunities for growth and reinvention; hopefully WCCTAC can capitalize on this opportunity to deliver a great transit service.