BART planners begin work on new vision for future

Way back in 1957, Bay Area planners were thinking big. Concerned about the booming population and worsening traffic congestion, they proposed a round-the-bay rapid transit network that eventually spawned today’s BART.

Now, 54 years and 4 million people later, it’s BART’s turn to think big. Planners are working on a new vision for the future – one that could include express trains, all-night service, new stations along existing lines, trains traveling different routes and extensions to Livermore, Ocean Beach, Brentwood and Crockett.

“Over the past few years, we’ve just been trying to keep our heads above water,” said Carter Mau, BART’s executive manager of budget and planning. “Now that we’ve recovered a bit, it’s time to start looking at our future.”

The planning effort, which is just getting started, is called the metro concept, and will focus more on growth within the existing system and the urban core of the Bay Area than on extending the system outward. Still, it could include extensions within the BART district, which includes Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties.

Mau said the main goals are to increase capacity, enhance service and increase coverage, recognizing that BART’s original role as a system hauling commuters from the suburbs into San Francisco needs to be transformed.

BART is already taking the first step toward increasing capacity, ordering a new generation of cars with three doors – to speed loading and unloading – and increasing the size of its fleet. But it will also have to modify stations, and increase service, to handle larger crowds.

The BART of the future would run more frequently between the most popular – and populous – areas, offering more “show up and go” service where riders don’t need to check schedules. It could also feature express or skip-stop trains that would provide more-direct – and faster – trips for commuters.

Service could also be routed to provide speedier trips to the increasing number of suburban employment centers. And the addition of extra tracks, including crossovers that allow trains to switch tracks or change directions, could enable the addition of late-night or round-the-clock service.

“One of the problems we really need to solve is late-night service,” said director Tom Radulovich.

The study will also contemplate where, and how, BART should expand. Some of that expansion could bring new stations to existing lines.

So-called infill stations have been suggested by various sources in the past at 30th and Mission streets in San Francisco, Jack London Square in Oakland and Solano Avenue in Albany. A station in Irvington, in Fremont on the under-construction Warm Springs extension, is also under consideration.

And while the focus is on improving the existing BART system, the plan would also consider extensions using BART technology to Livermore and possibly out to Geary Boulevard through the Richmond District, a project director James Fang calls “BART to the Beach.”

BART’s e-BART line, a diesel-powered link between BART’s Pittsburg/Bay Point station and Antioch, could also be extended to Brentwood, and a similar system could be added from Richmond to Crockett.

BART planners expect to spend seven to eight months studying current and expected travel patterns and future development, looking at different ways of transforming BART, then developing a plan. The agency will ask for public input with a series of town-hall meetings.

BART has no estimated cost for remodeling the system but the effort would clearly run into the billions. And those desires would have to compete with – or wait in line behind – an estimated $7.5 billion in long-term maintenance and modernization needs over the next 25 years that have no source of funding.

“The BART system is 40 years old now,” Mau said. “We need to replace not only our railcars but the system that powers those railcars and supports those railcars. Finding some way to maintain the system we have now is going to be critical.”

E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com.

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