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Wednesday, Apr 16 1997
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama)
The Capitol
Washington, D.C.

Dear Sen. Shelby:
As chairman for the Senate subcommittee responsible for doling out federal tax dollars for commuter train projects, you have some big decisions to make. One involves the rail system called Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART.

Last week, two local elected bodies -- San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and BART's board of directors -- authorized a deal to pay for an extension of the current BART system into San Francisco International Airport and beyond. The project includes the construction of four new train stations and is incredibly stupid and wasteful.

The extension, which BART says it would complete by the year 2001 for a price of $1.2 billion, turns on your willingness to commit $750 million in federal funds to the project. The national press says you have life-and-death power over the project, and because $750 million is a lot of money (approximately 20 percent of the federal money available for mass transit during the next six years), we wanted to be sure you knew the whole idiotic score before you cut any federal money loose.

Initially, the BART extension was meant to allow train travel to the airport and to link BART with a second commuter rail system, called Caltrain. It was hoped that this meshing of commuter systems would ease freeway congestion south of San Francisco.

As the extension plan moved through the bureaucratic maze, however, local politicians tacked two outlandish and expensive features onto it. Those features will cost taxpayers an extra $250 million, at minimum, and will make life easier for only a tiny segment of airline travelers (that is, business fliers who are catching international flights).

Those features will, of course, create a real estate redevelopment opportunity on 16 acres of dirt in a tiny town called Millbrae. We weren't sure that a senator from Alabama would have much interest in aiding real estate speculation in California. But we knew the entire San Francisco political and business establishments would be descending on you in coming weeks, extolling the virtues of BART-to-SFO and pushing you to show them the money.

So we thought we'd start from the beginning and give you all the reasons why you should laugh at the San Franciscans, throw them out of your office, and kill this deal dead.

We'll give the best reason first. BART to the airport isn't really a transportation project, Sen. Shelby. It's the fulfillment of a sleazy back-room deal between a newspaper publisher with megalomania problems and an overambitious low-level politician who wanted to become an overambitious midlevel politician.

Here's how it happened.
Back in 1986, there was a San Francisco supervisor named Quentin Kopp who was locked in a tough three-way battle for a state Senate seat. The race was thought to be exceedingly close. To win, Kopp felt he needed the endorsement of Citizen Kane's grandson, Will Hearst III, publisher of the San Francisco Examiner. Hearst was willing to make the endorsement. But that quid was going to cost Kopp a quo: He had to agree to support a pet project of the Examiner, hence and forevermore.

Quentin Kopp had to agree to support taking BART directly into the San Francisco International Airport.

Kopp did so. But don't take our word for it. Listen to what one person who attended the editorial board meeting where Kopp won the endorsement says: "It wasn't Kopp's big issue. It was the Examiner's big issue. ... Quentin knew that if he didn't agree to BART into the airport that the chances were he wouldn't get the paper's endorsement."

Kopp won the Senate seat, and over the years, his deal with Hearst took on its own weather -- and became a political obsession for Kopp. For a lawmaker without a demonstrable legacy, BART-to-SFO would be Kopp's proverbial statue in the park. He could point to the rails, the station at the airport, and say, "I did that."

But state Sen. Kopp had a problem. No matter how you penciled the numbers or ran the rails, taking BART into the airport itself made absolutely no sense. It did make sense to build a station outside the airport, where BART and the other Bay Area commuter rail system, Caltrain, could connect. If that station were built, both BART and Caltrain could be linked to the airport via an internal airport light-rail system that was already in the works.

This approach, senator, made so much sense it was almost beautiful. It required less track, less right of way, fewer expensive rail switches, and at least one less train station. And it would serve just as many train riders, while saving taxpayers at least $250 million over the plan to put a BART station inside the airport's international terminal.

But anything short of taking BART directly into the airport would satisfy neither Sen. Kopp's deal with Rosebud's grandson, nor what had fast become the senator's political manifest destiny.

So, Kopp did what other California politicians do when reason and facts are against them. He manipulated.

By 1994, state Sen. Quentin Kopp had become something of a political power in west San Francisco and to the south, down the Peninsula. As such, he sponsored a ballot measure known as Proposition I. It asked voters a seemingly simple question: Would you back extending BART directly into the airport, if the extension didn't cost the city a dime? Not surprisingly, the voters said, "Hell, yes."

In the months leading up to the vote, Kopp used his localized power, cutting deals with compliant local elected officials, swapping his endorsement of them for their endorsement of BART-to-SFO. One example: Then-S.F. Supervisor Kevin Shelley, knowing he would run for state Assembly out of Kopp's district in the coming years, loaned his influential name to the bad transit plan in return for Kopp's endorsement. Scores of other local officials chose this same, expedient route.

The back-scratching paid off. Kopp's BART plan won easily at the polls in a low-turnout election. Now, it is true that the current financing deal to pay for it doesn't tap the city's treasury. But San Franciscans will pay in other ways, with their federal tax dollars and via the BART fare box, where rates already are on the rise.

Extending BART to the airport didn't make any more fiscal sense after the passage of Prop. I than before. If ever anybody asked a critical question about the project, Kopp and its other supporters could invoke the will of the people, and the people had said yes on BART-to-SFO.

But Kopp never told the people the truth about taking BART to the airport. He didn't tell them that airport officials would never allow SFO to serve as the end of a BART line. He didn't tell them that taking BART into the airport actually meant taking BART 1.7 miles past the airport, into the town of Millbrae. He didn't tell them that in this jury-rigged design, the stop at the airport would be on a sidetrack.

At BART, this curious design -- with a branch of track veering off into the airport, while another continues south to Millbrae -- has a name. They call it the "Y." And in addition to more track, more switches, and another station or two, building the Y also means having to buy land for a new station in Millbrae. The land in question includes a collection of dilapidated slum apartment buildings.

We understand why the people of Millbrae would probably prefer a shiny new BART station to slum apartments, but we don't really understand what slum-razing has to do with extending rapid transit to the San Francisco airport.

What is even harder to fathom, senator, is the absurd behavior of nearly all of San Francisco officialdom this month.

When the opportunity to undo 11 years of bad decisions arrived, when the deal to finance the local share of this boondoggle came before San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and BART's directors earlier this month, a few officials stood up to note the severe problems with the extension. These few naysayers had company. The airlines themselves had dubbed the proposal a turkey, saying the industry's contribution could be better spent on the cheaper alternative. Local environmental groups and public transit activists also opposed the plan.

But their sensible arguments were overwhelmed by the greasy hordes of greedy officials who wanted to suck $750 million of federal tax dollars into the Bay Area, regardless of the merits of the project.

Even officials who opposed putting BART inside the airport in 1994 -- most notably Mayor Willie Brown -- pulled out all the stops to close the deal.

None of these "public servants" even bothered to pretend this is a smart project. They just said the tab for Sen. Kopp's egotism and Will Hearst's bravado was going to be paid by the feds.

So, what us worry?
One of the more absurd comments came from Board of Supervisors President Barbara Kaufman. She explained her decision to vote for the airport boondoggle, even though she had previously opposed the project, this way:

"When you put up a fight and lose, and keep coming back, it is a real waste of time," she scolded.

The supposed fiscal watchdog on the Board of Supervisors, Susan Leal, spouted a similar doozy before voting for the airport extension.

"I didn't support this [previously]," she said, "but the train has already left the station."

Now that it is pulling into your stop, senator, please derail this runaway. If the San Franciscans get too pushy about the deal, just tell them you were never a fan of Orson Welles, anyway.


About The Authors

George Cothran


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