Ridership surges on BART extensionBy Denis Cuff
Train ridership is surging on BART's rail extension to the San Francisco International Airport, nearly five years after the tracks to five new stations opened with far fewer passengers than expected.
Average weekday passenger totals on the airport extension increased 16.4 percent, to 35,107 riders a day, from Jan. 1 through March 1, compared with the same months in 2007. The increase in riders was a more modest 4.5 percent on the entire BART system, up to about 350,000 passengers per weekday.
BART managers say the biggest reason for the passenger increase was a Jan. 1 increase in train service on the airport extension, an upgrade possible only after BART dissolved a conflict-ridden joint operating agreement last year with San Mateo County and assumed full control of the extension.
"We offered more service and attracted more riders," said Joel Keller, a long-time BART board member from Antioch. "It's a good thing. Ridership is the bread and butter of balancing our budget. When we opened the extension (in 2003), ridership wasn't what we had hoped for. We're on an upswing now."
Beginning Jan. 1, BART improved service in two ways. On the airport extension in San Mateo County, BART doubled the number of trains to San Bruno, started trains to the airport earlier in the morning, and resumed direct service from the heavily used Pittsburg/Bay Point train line to SFO.
At the same time, on the entire four-county transit system, BART cut maximum waiting times between trains from 20 to 15 minutes after 7 p.m. on weeknights and Saturdays, and all day Sunday.
BART administrators say they wanted to upgrade service on the airport extension for years, but were blocked by SamTrans, the San Mateo County transit agency that was an initial partner in managing the rail extension.
San Mateo County officials soured on the partnership when the extension initially attracted less than half the predicted 50,000 daily passengers, and lost money instead of generating profits, as BART had predicted when the extension was planned in the 1990s.
Last year, BART and SamTrans dissolved their partnership, freeing BART to make the service changes.
"Sometimes, divorce can be a good thing," said Keller of the BART board. "The airport extension is an asset to mobility in the entire region, and now it's being used by more people."
Airport extension ridership also has been boosted for other reasons, BART officials said. The weak dollar has made San Francisco a bargain destination for Europeans, who fly into San Francisco Airport and take the train to hotels in the city, officials said.
Ridership also has jumped because BART has allowed overnight parking at more train stations, enabling airline passengers to leave their cars at BART and hop a train to the airport, said BART spokesman Linton Johnson said.
Riders who sign up online for overnight parking at BART can park for either $5 a night at many East Bay stations, and $6 a night at four stations on the airport extension.
Tom Radulovich, a BART board member from San Francisco, said there has been room for ridership growth on the airport extension because its stations have more empty parking spaces than BART stations elsewhere.
"As we get more passengers on the extension and our lots fill up there, it will be a test of how much the access to our stations limits our ridership growth," Radulovich said.
Copyright ©2008 Bay Area News Group. Published 04/24/2008.