Crowded commutes continue to dominate the lives of many residents throughout the Bay Area.
And perhaps no one knows that better than anyone who drives on Interstate 580 through the Tri-Valley.
Whether from the routine backup at the I-580/I-680 interchange or the typically packed lanes during normal commute conditions (or worse yet, the gridlock any time a crash occurs), freeway congestion has become a fact of life for most in Pleasanton.
"The only real solution for 580 is you put a gate down over the Altamont Pass and you keep those Central Valley people from coming in," Art Dao, executive director of Alameda County Transportation Commission, quipped to the Pleasanton City Council during a presentation last month.
"Or," Dao added, more seriously, "you build a mass transit extension out here to the foot of the hill."
BART to Livermore -- the comprehensive transit project that's been on the tip of Tri-Valley residents' tongues for decades -- received a boost of energy this summer.
BART in July released its draft environmental impact report (EIR) providing key analysis of a potential extension of BART service to Livermore.
The base proposal outlines traditional BART rail down the I-580 median to a new station near the Isabel Avenue intersection, estimated at more than $1.6 billion. But the voluminous EIR also looks at alternative scenarios including a light rail station at Isabel or new Express Bus services between Livermore and the eastern Dublin-Pleasanton BART station.
The public comment period for the draft EIR runs for another week and a half, putting the BART board on track for final EIR consideration next year -- a major step toward moving forward on a project option.
And then last month, the State Legislature gave overwhelming support to bipartisan legislation that would create a new regional agency tasked solely with delivering improved connectivity between BART and the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train, including taking over construction of a BART extension to Livermore.
Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, whose district includes Livermore and Dublin, called Assembly Bill 758 "a game changer."
"I have never been more optimistic," said Haggerty, who has been involved with BART to Livermore for more than 20 years.
Leaders in the region agree that a public transit overhaul in the Tri-Valley is key to alleviating congestion. But the same question remains: What changes to make?
Tri-Valley residents' input about the available options will be vital in helping the nine-member BART Board of Directors decide among what's on the table now, according to BART Director John McPartland, whose district includes both Dublin-Pleasanton stations and Livermore.
"I represent the people, and I'm going to do my best selling to the Board of Directors based upon the analysis and feedback that we end up getting from the public," McPartland said.
"That's my job, is to get BART to Livermore. And I'm the representative of the people of the Tri-Valley area in order to get that done," he added. "That's my sole purpose of being a director is to live up to my obligation to get BART to Livermore."
As for the Tri-Valley's elected leaders, Pleasanton Mayor Jerry Thorne said his city's officials "know that any solution will be expensive, so we have to focus on options that make practical and financial sense -- the rail extension options result in the highest ridership levels and will best meet the needs of our region."
"Expanded BART service, as well as greater rail connectivity, are important steps in helping to alleviate growing congestion on I-580," Dublin Mayor David Haubert said. "Less time on the freeways means better quality of life for individuals and families."
And Livermore is more than ready for rail expansion to move forward, according to Livermore Mayor John Marchand.
"In the original design for the BART system decades ago, the first extension was planned to come to Livermore. Since that time, BART has been extended to two counties that voted against going into the BART system," Marchand said, adding:
"Livermore residents have paid almost $400 million into the BART system. The time has come to build BART to Livermore."
The base proposal studied in the draft EIR outlines extending conventional BART rail from the eastern Dublin-Pleasanton station 5.5 miles down the I-580 median to a new station just east of the freeway's junction with Isabel Avenue in the city of Livermore.
The full BART station would sit in the center of I-580 with pedestrian bridges giving access to either side.
Freeway alignment would need to be shifted to create room for the larger median to accommodate the BART line and the new station, along with modifications to four I-580 interchanges. The number of travel lanes is not expected to change.
The Isabel station would include a parking facility with 3,412 spaces between a seven-level parking structure and two ground-level lots south of the freeway. Space for more bus transfers, passenger drop-off and pick-up, and taxi queuing would be on the north side.
The project would come with improved bus routes to connect the new station better with ACE, downtown Livermore and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, among other areas. The city of Livermore is also amid public review of an Isabel Neighborhood Plan, outlining potential transit-oriented development around a full Isabel BART station, including residential, retail, commercial and other uses.
BART officials say they would need a new storage facility in the area to accommodate the new train cars and other materials because of adding a station. They propose building it north of I-580 about two miles away, northeast of Las Positas College.
All told, BART estimates design and construction of the traditional BART extension to Isabel would come in at $1.635 billion -- including $300 million to escalate the cost to the midpoint of construction.
If this rail extension is endorsed, construction would begin in 2021 and last until 2026, under BART's current timetable.
That would depend largely on the schedules for the ongoing environmental review, the design phase and obtaining funding.
As of July, BART had $533 million committed to design and construction of BART to Livermore, consisting of $398 million in Alameda County transportation sales tax funds, $95 million in regional bridge toll allocations and $40 million in city of Livermore impact fees, according to BART. The agency would likely look for state and federal dollars to fill much of the remaining gap.
And after construction, a full Isabel extension would see about $19 million to $23 million per year in operating costs during the first 15 years, according to BART.
"I absolutely support extending the traditional BART system to Isabel and keep that moving along," said local Assemblywoman Catharine Baker (R-San Ramon). "And I hope BART will see that's a smart investment to make."
BART leadership has not committed to a traditional BART rail extension to Isabel and is studying other options, including rail and bus alternatives, as part of its environmental review process.
* DMU/EMU: The lead rail alternative being considered for BART to Livermore is a diesel multiple unit (DMU), known colloquially as light rail. They are self-propelled cars with a diesel engine to generate their own power on a standard-gauge rail track, whereas traditional BART cars use electricity and run on wide-gauge rail track.
The DMU individual cars and overall trains are smaller than the traditional BART trains, but a DMU extension to Isabel would be almost $40 million less expensive to construct at $1.599 billion and almost $5 million per year less expensive to operate.
DMU is the strategy BART is using in east Contra Costa County where central Pittsburg and Antioch stations are due online next year.
A related alternative for Livermore is electrical multiple unit (EMU), a project option closely aligned with the DMU in terms of size and impact, except that the cars are electrically powered instead of diesel. An EMU extension would cost nearly the same as traditional BART, but like DMU the subsequent operating costs are estimated at about $5 million less expensive annually than full BART.
The DMU/EMU options would also involve extending BART rail to the I-580/Isabel interchange. There would be a smaller station footprint at Isabel, plus a smaller parking facility there and a smaller storage facility to the northeast.
Changes along I-580 and freeway interchanges would be implemented too, as would a new platform at the Dublin-Pleasanton station to accommodate riders transferring to the full BART system. The light rail construction timeline would mirror full BART.
* Express Bus/BRT: The next alternative being considered would see no rail improvements but an overhaul of bus infrastructure serving BART in the eastern Tri-Valley.
The Express Bus/Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) options would increase the bus network, including new bus platforms at the Dublin-Pleasanton station. There would also be new bus ramps from the I-580 express lanes for buses to enter and connect directly to the transfer platforms, giving passengers the ability to transfer from bus to BART without leaving the station.
BART would add more car parking at the Dublin-Pleasanton station as well as at a new parking lot at Laughlin Road in Livermore.
This bus-only infrastructure would cost an estimated $376 million. The construction timeline for Express Bus, like the full BART and either light rail option, would be from 2021 to 2026.
BART board vice president Robert Raburn, who asked that the Express Bus option be included in the draft EIR for BART to Livermore, said he thinks that alternative would help alleviate traffic concerns in the Tri-Valley while also guaranteeing better transit connectivity between downtown Livermore, the national labs and ACE stations -- at an attainable cost.
"Right now, what we have on the table, I see a deliverable project ... it looks like we have funding for a project that is Express Bus with direct transfer," Raburn said during a phone interview. "And I don't see funding for a project that's in the $1 billion-plus category. And that's the big dilemma: Who's going to pay for this?"
Raburn, who represents most of Oakland, was the only other BART board member to respond with comment after the Pleasanton Weekly emailed each of them last week asking for their thoughts on BART to Livermore.
* Enhanced bus: Coming in with the lowest pricetag -- other than moving forward with nothing for Livermore -- is an enhanced bus option, which would add bus routes and other minor changes to improve access to the Dublin-Pleasanton station.
It would not include any significant capital improvements like transfer platforms or freeway-to-BART ramps.
BART estimates the enhanced bus option would cost $25 million and could be built over two months. That's also how long it would take to implement the feeder bus improvements for the other alternatives.
In terms of rider impact, the full BART option would result in the highest number of new BART riders (11,900 per day) and most cars off the road (244,000 fewer vehicle miles traveled), according to the draft EIR.
DMU/EMU would follow with 7,000 new BART riders and 140,600 fewer vehicle miles traveled, the Express Bus would see 3,500 new riders and 92,600 fewer vehicle miles, and the enhanced bus would add 400 riders and reduce vehicle miles by 6,500.
Key elected officials in the Tri-Valley endorse rail extension to Livermore, but the type of rail system preferred still appears up in the air for them.
"The city of Pleasanton continues to believe that a rail option provides the best solution for both environmental and cost effectiveness advantages over the bus rapid transit option," Thorne said.
Supervisor Nate Miley, whose district includes Pleasanton, has expressed also his support for extending BART to Livermore but was unable to comment on the project this week due to a death in the family.
"There are options that we as a community need to consider," Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) said.
"We could extend it up to Isabel, we could go beyond Isabel with 'big BART' as we all know it. Or we could consider DMU, which could go all the way up the Altamont and into Tracy to really address where much of the congestion is coming from," he added. "I think the best thing we can do is collaborate as local leaders, find the funding and present to the community the options."
To help expedite -- and better localize -- BART to Livermore planning, Baker co-authored bipartisan legislation that received overwhelming support in the State Legislature to establish the Tri-Valley-San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority.
The new agency's only task would be "planning, developing and delivering cost-effective and responsive transit connectivity" between BART and ACE that "meets the goals and objectives of the community," according to AB 758.
"What's wonderful about what 758 does is it gets the issue of connecting BART to ACE into one authority that has one sole mission: to deliver that project," Baker said. "And that's a model that we saw successful for extending BART into Silicon Valley."
"Connecting these systems is essential, and this is the absolute most effective way to do it, rather than just leaving it in BART's hands when they have many other serious challenges to overcome," she added.
Sponsored by Baker and Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Democrat from Stockton, AB 758 passed resoundingly out of the Senate and Assembly last month, with one nay vote per legislative house. The bill remains on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk awaiting approval or veto as of Thursday morning.
If approved, the new joint powers authority (JPA) would have the ability to take over planning and construction of a BART board-endorsed option for extending BART to Isabel.
The JPA's governing board would be composed of 15 representatives, including Tri-Valley and west San Joaquin cities, both counties and BART. Some of those leaders have already taken part in a regional working group of local officials for the past couple years to keep the BART to Livermore conversation moving.
"Who better to shepherd the process along than those who are most impacted by it and who live it every single day of their lives," Thorne said.
The JPA concept to accomplish BART to Livermore has received strong support from key city, county, state and federal leaders in the Tri-Valley.
"Livermore has waited far too long for a BART extension. The traffic on 580 is intolerable. The Baker/Eggman bill will provide a much needed boost to accelerate the planning process," local State Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) said.
One key opposition came from the BART board, a majority of whom voted earlier this summer to stand against AB 758.
But Baker pointed out that opposition applied to the original draft of the bill, whereas the final version includes amendments that might have addressed BART directors' key concerns, including giving them more input.
"I think BART will take another look at why this is the best way to do this project and ultimately will help the BART system," the assemblywoman said.
The bill also states the authority is not designed to disrupt BART's environmental review process or infringe upon its process for planning and delivering an extension down I-580 to Isabel -- unless the BART board does not adopt a preferred extension project by next June 30.
The new authority would have to start its work soon, as AB 758 requires it to release a feasibility report publicly by July 1, 2019, outlining its plans for enhancing BART to ACE connectivity. If the report includes a recommendation for extending BART to Livermore, the BART board would have the ability to endorse or deny the project.
"It will include a preliminary design, a completion schedule and funding plan," Haggerty said of the feasibility report. "In short: It will be a plan to get construction underway as soon as possible."
In the meantime, if you're looking for a little light weekend reading, check out BART's draft EIR online -- all 3,888 pages, spread among two volumes plus appendices.
The document analyzes potential impacts, as well as strategies to mitigate those impacts, for a variety of environmental categories caused by all proposed BART to Isabel options.
Topics include impacts on transportation, agricultural resources, housing, visual aesthetics, cultural resources, geology, water quality, biological resources, noise, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and public health and safety.
BART has been collecting citizen comments, and held two Tri-Valley community meetings, on the draft EIR since it was released publicly July 31. The deadline to submit comments is Oct. 16.
"I want people to continue giving feedback, even after they close open public comment (on the EIR) because that's going to be the kind of ammunition that will help me sell this to a crowd of other directors, because I'm only one director out of nine," McPartland said.
Once the public review period closes, BART will prepare the final EIR to include all comments received and a written answer to "each substantive comment."
The BART board is expected to consider certifying the EIR -- without which the project couldn't proceed -- and approving its preferred extension option in the latter part of 2018.
With the EIR certification, BART would complete the environmental review required under state law. And then analysis under federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act, would follow.
The draft EIR is available online at www.bart.gov, plus in hard copy locally at the Pleasanton Public Library. Comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to BART to Livermore Extension Project, 21st Floor, 300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA 94612.
* Editor's note: To read more in-depth comments from the policymakers interviewed for this story, click here.