Critique of MTC’s Core Capacity Study

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The Core Capacity Transit Study was conducted under MTC auspices.  The main purpose of the Study was to identify potential travel improvements on the Bay Bridge and in the San Francisco transit corridors leading to the Bridge.

A Good Beginning:  The study team developed a concise and effective set of Evaluation Criteria with the emphasis on travel efficiency and cost effectiveness. The study team also did a good job of outlining the severe transportation constraints that are already beginning to plague transbay travelers and that, if ignored, that would  eventually constrain the economies of the central Bay Area.

Current Status – Final Report Released:  Many months have passed since the early scoping meetings.  On September 1, 2017 the Final Core Capacity Report was issued. Unfortunately it does not appear to provide the well-justified list of improvements needed to achieve Study objectives.

General: The Report is well organized but unduly repetitious. Too much attention is paid to already ongoing projects in a way that made it hard to tell which projects are old and which are new. The Consultants did a good job of showing how the relentless growth of regional population and jobs, particularly in San Francisco, requires an aggressive near term transbay improvement program. However the Report is weak on citing the pros and cons of its dozens of proposed solutions, many of which appear to have been adopted from the internal wish lists of the participating transportation agencies.

Lack of Data: Properly evaluating a large capital projects requires among other elements a bonafide benefit-to-cost analysis. In the case of large public transit projects, this usually takes the form of a comparison between the anticipated future ridership of the proposed improvement and its capital and future operating costs. Since the Report does not include cost-to-benefit analyses, it is not possible to make informed judgments about the many short term, mid-term and long-term proposals listed in the Report.

Short and Mid-term San Francisco Alternatives: In the Study, attention was directed to SFMTA “Muni Forward” surface changes. Since these changes are mostly already in various stages of implementation, the reason for including them among the recommendations for additional change is not clear.  In addition to improved AC Transit transbay service two Westbay transit rail elements in need of special attention received only passing attention:

1.) The first concerns the Downtown Extension of Caltrain (DTX): Today there is a large gap in commuter rail service between the existing 4th and King Caltrain terminal and downtown San Francisco. Extending Caltrain to San Francisco’s new Transbay Transit Center (TTC) will reduce the pressures that now cause over 300,000 northbound trucks and cars to cross from San Mateo County into San Francisco every day.  The Core Capacity Study mentions the need to extend Caltrain, but does not elaborate.

TTC’s huge train level:  destined to remain empty for decades?

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2.) The second concerns the Muni level of the Market Street Subway:  The Market Street Subway, built in the 1970’s, was designed to be Muni’s workhorse. Instead, thanks in part to an ill-considered operational change made in the 1990’s, the Market Street subway today carries about the same number of riders as the old Market Street streetcars used to carry back in the 1960’s. Unlike virtually every other subway system on the planet the “trains” that operate on the Muni level of the Market Street subway are only 1 and 2 cars long. During the off-peak hours this works reasonably well, as the cars come along frequently.  However, during heavy use periods the short trains are so crowded that tens of thousands of would-be Muni Metro riders are deterred from using the system. The Core Capacity Study does not deal with this problem substantively. Pursuant to a short two-paragraph “discussion”, the long time proposal to operate short trains on the surface and  longer trains in the subway was declared “unworkable”, probably because the Consultants didn’t have the budget to examine the matter thoroughly. Instead there are proposals to:

a.)  keep the J-Line out of the subway by either ending it at Duboce for a transfer to an inbound N-car or operating the downtown leg along the surface of Market Street.

b.)  combine the K and L lines into a single feeder service, requiring K and M riders to transfer to 4-car N trains at the West Portal.  As acknowledged in the Study, these changes would increase the trip times for many riders. Moreover it is unlikely that 4-car M trains would be long enough to meet the demand for service generated by 3 separate LRV lines plus walk-ons.  Additional work is needed to bring the full benefits of the Market Street subway to the people of San Francisco.

Short and Mid-Term Transbay Alternatives: Given the looming Bridge and BART capacity constraints, there is clearly a need for an “early action” program. The most obvious short term fix is to do what’s necessary to increase AC Transit’s transbay ridership far above its current of 14,000 riders a day. This challenge was not addressed in the Study because MTC unaccountably limited the scope of the Study, in so far as bus operations were concerned, to the Bay Bridge and a one or two mile stretch east of the Bridge. As a result the Study focused on a gawky and potentially unsafe contraflow lane on the Bridge (where eastbound and westbound mixed flow travel can be regulated with metering lights) and on short but expensive grade-separated bus-only connections of questionable usefulness at the east end of the Bridge.  Most needed: a major revamping of AC Transit’s transbay operation designed to increase its daily transbay ridership at least five-fold.

Image result for empty buses on city streetsThere are signs that AC Transit’s own Major Corridors Study may be moving in the right direction in this regard.

Long Term Transbay Alternatives: The report shows four BART extension alignments and one conventional passenger rail alignment. As proposed, the conventional rail alignment would be substantially more expensive than any of the BART alternatives and yet offer fewer benefits. Neither the Capitol Corridor Transportation Authority’s plans for upgrading the Capitol Corridor service nor the advantages of connecting the Amtrak Capitol Corridor service directly to the Westbay was discussed.  The reasons for the study team’s apparent preference for a BART crossing are unclear.  Other, potentially viable rail alignments on both sides of the Bay were left out entirely. The five alignments may have been inserted merely to underscore the wide array of alignment possibilities. More work needed, beginning with credible ridership projections and detailed capital and operating cost estimates.

Concluding Comment:  BART is projected to run out of transbay carrying capacity between 2025 and 2030.  There is talk of getting another transbay subaqueous rail system into commercial operation by 2040.  However, unless the Bay Area transportation project start-to-finish times are cut in half, make that 2065 or later.  So what happens during the intervening 40 to 50 years? There is as yet still no credible answer to that question.

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