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SFO Gets BART, But New Runways Are Unlikely

San Francisco International Airport officials will celebrate the opening of a new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train connection this month while lamenting the delay of an unrelated plan to expand runways. The BART extension to the airport is scheduled to open June 22, five and a half years after construction began, and more than 40 years after an airport-BART connection was first proposed.

The train system will stop at the airport's international terminal, and continue to a new transit hub in the nearby San Mateo County city of Millbrae. Inside SFO, an automated people mover that resembles a monorail will ferry passengers to other terminals once they get off BART. The new BART extension includes four stations on 8.7 miles of track. Besides SFO and Millbrae, the new stations are in South San Francisco and San Bruno.

The new stations link to a system that already barely crosses the San Mateo County line to Colma and Daly City. At the Millbrae station, BART trains will meet passengers arriving on the Caltrain line, a heavy rail system serving the San Francisco Peninsula. Caltrain passengers can then transfer to BART if they wish to go to the airport. Passengers will walk directly across the tracks to catch their trains in what is supposed to be a seamless transit web. Every time a Caltrain pulls into Millbrae, a BART train will be there to meet it on the same ground level platform, according to Molly McArthur, manager of community and government relations for BART. The new station is close to Highway 101, which is often clogged with airport traffic. The Millbrae transit center is expected to eliminate 10,000 daily vehicle trips to the airport, and to be BART's busiest station. By 2010, 70,000 passengers a day are expected to ride the new BART extension, about one-quarter of them to and from the airport.

The 8.7-mile extension cost a total of $1.5 billion to build. Of that amount, $750 million came from federal funds, with the rest from state and local funds. The 64,000-square-foot Millbrae station is the first link between BART and Caltrain, a commuter rail service that runs about 70 from San Francisco through San Jose to Gilroy. The new Millbrae train station will have 3,000 parking spaces, which is on par for BART stations in outlying communities. It will also have connection to local buses. BART, which was originally expected to serve as a train system for the entire Bay Area, transports passengers in Contra Costa, Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. With the new airport extension, BART will have 104 miles of track, said BART spokesman Ron Rodriguez.

Santa Clara County voters approved a ballot measure in 2000 to bring the train system to their county via the East Bay as well. Local officials are hoping to secure federal funding for that extension this year, with construction expected to start in several years. While the new SFO BART extension is celebrated, plans to extend runways at the airport appear to be foundering. A

fter spending at least $74 million on studies to look at building new runways � and possibly extending them into San Francisco Bay � the San Francisco Board of Supervisors indicated during meetings in May that it would not provide additional funding for the project. The airport said it needed $3.5 million for the remainder of this fiscal year, and $5 million for next year to pay staff, complete environmental studies, and maintain an option on wetlands in the North Bay that could serve as mitigation. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the airport dropped its funding request in late May.

The Board of Supervisors includes many members who took office since the airport expansion plans were announced. Voters approved a ballot measure in November 2001 that would require voter approval of any city project filling at least 100 acres of the bay � namely the airport runway project. SFO Spokesman Mike McCarron said the project is not dead. "It's going to be put on hold for a couple of years," he said, citing the economy and decreased passenger levels at the airport.

The airport extension project has been opposed by environmental groups, who do not want to see landfill in the bay. But the project was strongly pushed by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and was supported by local members of the business community. When the plan was unveiled in 1998, an airport spokesman said the new runways were needed by the year 2010. The airport's runways are 750 feet apart; however, the Federal Aviation Administration requires a separation of 4,500 feet between planes during poor weather landings. Flight delays at the airport during foggy and stormy weather are legendary. Felicia Borrego, political director of the environmental group Save the Bay, said the environmental arguments against the expansion have always been "compelling," but she agreed with McCarron's assessment that the poor economy had stalled the project.

United Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, is in bankruptcy and has cut flights as it struggles to regain profitability. The airline reported losing $1.34 billion during the first quarter of this year. Borrego's group had urged the airport to consider other alternatives to new runways, such as more sophisticated radar technology for landing planes. As originally proposed, two new runways would replace two of the airport's four existing runways. Early proposals called for up to two square miles of landfill in the bay to accommodate the new runways, which would cost as much as $3.5 billion to build and take eight to ten years to complete (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2001). At one point, airport officials hoped to restore salt production ponds on the bay south of the airport to mitigate the damage caused by the fill. But that plan was unlinked from the airport runway plan, and 16,500 acres of salt ponds were purchased for restoration earlier this year by the state and federal governments and a group of private foundations.

Contacts:

Ron Rodriguez, Bay Area Rapid Transit spokesman, (510)464-6000.
Molly McArthur, BART manager of community and government relations, (650) 689-8411.
Mike McCarron, San Francisco International Airport spokesman, (650)821-5019.
Felicia Borrego, Save the Bay, (510)452-9261.

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