Issue date: July 21, 1999
By MARION SOFTKY
The idea of running BART above Bayshore Freeway from Millbrae to Menlo Park to zip frantic commuters between jobs in Silicon Valley and homes in the East Bay is history -- for now.
At a press conference July 13, San Mateo County's business, labor and transportation establishment quashed the idea, which was floated just last month by former Supervisor Tom Huening and Denise de Ville, president and CEO of the San Mateo County Economic Development Association (SAMCEDA). Their petition drive to qualify two measures for the March 2000 ballot was officially launched just 10 days before.
In its place, a new collaboration of elected officials, major business employers represented by SAMCEDA, and organized labor, promised a new effort to address the county's transportation crisis.
"The intentions behind the initiative were good; however, the timing was very bad," said Supervisor Mike Nevin, who engineered the compromise at a meeting the previous week. "We need to build a community consensus on how to address traffic, and consider all the options that are open to us."
The new transportation study will be overseen by the "Economic Vitality Partnership" (EVP), an offshoot of SAMCEDA that is already working on housing and transportation. Headed by San Carlos City Councilman Don Eaton, the steering committee of EVP will be organizing a public process to forge consensus on transportation problems that have been growing for 50 years. It is to produce comprehensive recommendations for short- and long-term solutions within a year.
"There is 5 million square feet of new office space coming on line in the next four years in south San Mateo County. That's roughly 15,000 more cars daily on already congested freeways and roads," said SAMCEDA Chairman Roger Grossman, who earlier supported the Huening-de Ville initiatives. "We need to solve this problem through consensus-building, cooperation and coordination. And we need to solve it quickly."
"I'm discouraged," said Menlo Park Councilman Steve Schmidt, who serves on both the Joint Powers Board that runs Caltrain and the SamTrans board, which manages BART in San Mateo County. He has been working for early electrification of Caltrain from Gilroy to San Francisco, estimated to cost $376 million, at the same time the railroad is being reconstructed.
Mr. Schmidt feared the new partnership still wants to move BART down the Peninsula at the expense of Caltrain. "This is a stacked deck in favor of BART," he said. "They want to put electrification on the back burner. They want Caltrain to be a dinosaur."
Rick Silver of the Rail Passengers Association of California, said the move was primarily political, intended to take the issue away from Mr. Huening, who is now county controller. "This is so wallowed in politics that nobody's concerned about solving the problem," he said. "In six weeks this will all be forgotten."
Mr. Huening, who attended the press conference, admitted he was disappointed at the failure of his initiative, but welcomed the new collaboration. "There is risk in passing by an opportunity," he warned. "I thought March was the best opportunity, but reasonable people disagree."
In bypassing the Huening-de Ville initiatives, the county's new transportation leadership argued the timing was bad. In particular, they feared the initiatives threaten the shaky funding for the current extension of BART from Colma to the airport and Millbrae. That $1.5 billion project is behind schedule and over budget, and San Mateo County and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have already had to advance funds to keep construction going as the federal government releases money in trickles.
Supervisor Nevin cited two other impending proposals that could affect transportation planning and funding:
**A possible March ballot measure by state Sen. John Burton to allow counties to ask voters to approve sales tax measures for transportation by a simple majority as long as a definitive transportation expenditure plan is in place.
**The possibility of high-speed rail from Southern California running up the Peninsula to San Francisco. A ballot measure of some $23 billion may come to California voters in November 2000.
"I don't want to jeopardize airport funds or the Burton measure," said Mr. Grossman, who is publisher of the San Mateo County Times. "We're simply changing the method, and are willing to work together."
The EVP steering committee that is putting together the new planning process -- including public hearings -- includes Supervisors Nevin and Jerry Hill, County Manager John Maltbie, Mr. Grossman, and Bill Nack, business manager of the San Mateo County Building Trades Council. "Organized labor supports the concept of a plan developed by EVP," Mr. Nack said.
EVP leaders promised that everything would be on the table in their new study: BART, either on Bayshore or along the Caltrain right-of-way; Caltrain; high-speed rail; and a recent proposal for a new ferry system around the Bay, with a price tag of $2 billion or so.
"All options are open. All things are possible," said Mr. Nevin.
BART still favored
Mr. Nevin suggested that by waiting, San Mateo County could improve its negotiating position with BART. If San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales succeeds in extending BART to San Jose on the east side of the Bay, BART will need San Mateo County in order to complete its rail loop. "We're in a great negotiating position," he said. San Mateo County's greatest leverage comes from its ownership of the Caltrain right-of-way, Mr. Nevin noted. "The Caltrain right-of-way is our greatest asset on the Peninsula," he said.
Mr. Nevin apparently envisions BART, Caltrain and high-speed rail trains all running up and down the Peninsula along the present Caltrain right-of-way. "It will be possible to have three rail lines on the Peninsula," he said ebulliently.