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San Francisco Gets Train-to-Plane Link

After years of delays, BART extends subway line to offer service from downtown to airport.

June 16, 2003|John Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- For this public transit mecca, the train-to-plane project seemed set for a perfect landing: Officials sought to extend the regional subway line to San Francisco International Airport, following through on a popular notion envisioned by area planners as far back as 1956.

Over the ensuing years, they learned a cruel transportation lesson: Sometimes, you just can't get there from here. Their project became a frustrating journey marked by nagging delays and political turbulence. But now, that long-anticipated airport extension is finally touching ground.

This week, the 98-mile Bay Area Rapid Transit system will finally go the few extra miles to connect with the world's seventh-busiest airport, adding San Francisco to a short list of cities nationwide -- including Atlanta, Chicago and Washington -- with a direct airport-subway link.

The 8.7-mile spur will feature four new stops, including an airport station within steps of the international gates and another in suburban Millbrae offering a cross-platform connection between a subway and regional rail line.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
BART extension -- An article in Monday's California section incorrectly stated that in 1988, the Bay Area Rapid Transit line extension to San Francisco International Airport was authorized to receive $750 million. The authorization was made in 1997.

Project supporters predict the new, mainly subterranean line will increase subway ridership by 70,000 trips a year by 2010, taking more vehicles off local freeways and helping ease the Bay Area's worsening transportation woes. Travelers will be able to make it from San Francisco International to attractions downtown for about $5, compared with $15 for a shuttle or $40 for a 10-mile taxi ride.

Yet as officials trumpet the new convenience at a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled Saturday, commuters in this densely populated region are asking the same question: How did it take so long to create such a critical transportation link?

Completion of the $1.5-billion airport connection has been complicated by federal funding woes, environmental concerns and jurisdictional infighting, not to mention an endangered garter snake.

Along with such expected opponents as local environmentalists, the subway extension was also hampered by a pair of unlikely foes: the airport and major airlines themselves, which feared the subway station would increase taxes and bring unwanted city political intrusion into their exclusive turf, say those close to the project.

Lessons for Los Angeles

Officials say the infighting provides a cautionary tale for cities such as Los Angeles, whose own Metro Green Line -- derided as a "road to nowhere" -- stops short of reaching busy Los Angeles International Airport. (A shuttle bus provides the final connection.)

"This whole San Francisco project has been a testimony to special-interest obstructionism and weak local leadership," said San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp, who fought for the rail extension as a longtime state senator and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

"It's just a shame that this has taken so long to realize. Because it's so common-sensical. Just look at European cities, such as London and Frankfurt. If those world-class cities could do it, what took San Francisco so long?"

Many hope the new subway connection will provide a boost to an airport reeling from economic misfortune. Last year, passenger traffic plunged to an 11-year low following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the deflation of the region's high-tech bubble.

United Airlines, which operates half of the airport's flights, filed for bankruptcy and slashed its schedule. And further study into the feasibility of extending airport runways into San Francisco Bay is also now on hold.

Earlier this year, local officials likened the new line to "the last spike being driven to complete the transcontinental railroad."

Local newspapers echoed the sentiments. "It's been a long and grueling road, fraught with political and funding potholes, but now it's just about done," boasted a recent San Francisco Examiner editorial. "It goes to show that major projects can still happen here."

On a recent media tour, local transportation officials proudly unveiled the newest stretch of subway track, which involves two largely underground lines from the present terminus in Daly City. One line rises above ground, crossing U.S. 101 as it curves toward the airport. The other continues south to the final above-ground station in nearby Millbrae.

Communities south of San Francisco also eagerly await the economic boost from the four new stations, including the one at the airport, which is actually in neighboring San Mateo County. One neighborhood developed an extensive plan for mixed-use development around its new station. Another spent millions on a new road to ease traffic around the stop.

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