Ragging on BART

Waiting for Godot…

If you follow the local news, you can’t have missed the stories about BART’s problems with rampant fare evasion, phone theft, human waste in cars/elevators/stations, homeless people using BART as daycare, drug use on trains, problems with the new trains that were going to make BART oh-so-better, and the now ordinary—almost routine —service delays. BART has managed to wrangle the poster boy status of—literally—crap transportation away from SF Muni.

I’m so cynical that I wonder if all of this bad news actually helps BART in other ways, like in keeping people’s attention away from the delay in opening the extension to Milpitas and Berryessa stations. Those stations, like the Warm Springs station that preceded it, are now three years late in being opened. I ragged on BART last year about the delay in opening these extensions. But because their opening had again been put off to an indefinite future it fell of my radar until the recent track maintenance started on the Antioch line.

Track maintenance? Three weekends ago BART started long term work on track repair on that line, starting at Lafayette station, which is near where I live. The prospect of this made me groan because they’ve done this before. Actually they did it for what seemed like years: on weekends they’d suddenly announce track maintenance and then service through Contra Costa singletracked and became delayed. BART had a nasty habit of not announcing they were doing work until shortly before the date, making any planning (e.g for rides) difficult. Why there was so little repeated track maintenance happening anywhere else in the BART system was a “puzzlement”, as the King of Siam said. The fact that this one section required so much work makes me suspect that something very serious has been festering there for years. You may recall that during the last BART strike the workers who got killed by the train being run by a scab were also working on that line. They wouldn’t have been out there during a strike, when resources are limited amidst the labor turmoil unless something really needed to be addressed.

In any case after years the track work abruptly stopped and we’ve had a couple years of respite. Now they are restarting, and seemingly as if nothing was learned BART announced that lanes of Highway 24 might be shut down to facilitate work although they never mentioned when they would do that. We found out exactly when: smackdab in the middle of a Saturday, all day. Although a weekend day is a better choice than a weekday, that didn’t seem to matter as traffic backed up as if were the commute hour. WTF!? I just looked at the announcement at the BART site and see that they’ve carefully changed it (without indicating it had been updated) so that lane closures will be happening on “select” weekends. Although night work would be a better time in terms of highway impact, I suspect they can’t do that because for some reason they need to work on the track during daylight hours. (Yet Caltrans manages to work on highways at night regularly.)

Anyway enough of the digression and back to the main story: the Milpitas and Berryessa station openings. This past June Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) finally finished its part of the work and handed over the stations and tracks to BART for testing. The construction of the new line and stations to San Jose is being done by VTA and as each section is done it hands it over to BART for testing before it can open. The Warm Springs station, which was the first one on the line extension, was also delayed for years with one snafu playing a major part: integrating the new electronic infrastructure with the old turned out to be replete with problems. Now BART is saying Milpitas should open by “late 2019.” That will be too late for the Mt. Hamilton in the Fall ride, which usually happens in early November but this year is taking place on Oct. 27. That’s too bad because the Berryessa station is close to the ride start. (Since BART opens late on Sundays, if you choose to ride to the start you will have to disembark at Warm Springs and ride quickly to make the start of Mt. Hamilton.)

Are we to give credence to this news? BART skeptics already know the answer: if you believe it, I’ll sell you a bridge. The chronology of delays is depressingly familiar. In April 2017 Milpitas station was “96% complete” and testing was to begin and it would “open ahead of schedule” in June (even though by that time it was already late for the original 2016 date!) Oops, in August 2017 BART said there were delays in testing and it would open June 2018. In January 2018 BART reiterated that Milpitas would open in June. But in March BART said delays in testing, lack of personnel, and “breakdowns in communication” between BART and a contractor would delay opening. In fact VTA hadn’t handed over the station even by April 2018 (!) so June seemed impossible. BART was changing the control systems at Warm Springs so that caused delays for the new stations downstream. Furthermore BART apparently did not have enough staff to work on both Warm Springs and the two new stations and they couldn’t find any knowledgeable consultants to fill in the gap. In February 2019 BART said the new stations could open by November 1. In June VTA did indeed hand off the stations to BART and now we’re hearing more mumbo-jumbo estimates on opening: now it’s “late 2019”. BART has an ingrained habit of setting amazingly ambitious target dates (as in: “Of course we won’t run into any problems and everything will happen in the most optimal fashion!”)

If you’re a betting man/woman, BART is not the place to wager if you like to win. But you know it will always be later rather than sooner. Since it’s already three years behind, what’s the diff if it’s another year or two? Mt. Hamilton 2020 or 2021?

I’m sure construction projects routinely run into unforeseen problems. But project managers never seem to factor their track record into estimates on the next project. If you’re three years late on the Warm Springs station, then why should we expect anything less for Milpitas or Berryessa? Maybe because you’ve learned from your past mistakes? Nah!

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