BART's new District 7 director says it's high time to revive an idea that has been kicking around for decades: Bringing BART north along the Interstate 80 corridor -- to San Pablo, Richmond Hilltop and Pinole, and perhaps Hercules and beyond.
"BART has been extended along every leg of service except where data demonstrates it can be the most beneficial," said Zakhary Mallett, of El Sobrante, a recently minted master of city planning from UC Berkeley who was elected to the BART board in November over three rivals, including the incumbent.
I-80 is the Bay Area's most congested freeway, Mallett notes. But in the 1960s, BART opted to veer west from El Cerrito Del Norte to the present Richmond station, heeding the call of Richmond leaders that a more direct route north would further emaciate Richmond's downtown, recalled Jack Meehan, a former mayor of Pinole who served on the City Council in the 1960s.
How to extend BART farther north had been a matter of debate. One proposed alignment would have run north from the present Richmond BART station along the Union Pacific Railroad corridor on the San Pablo Bay shore.¿
"There were objections to just about every route, until BART said we'll spend our money elsewhere," Meehan said.
BART eventually expanded to Pittsburg-Bay Point, Dublin-Pleasanton and Millbrae. Construction has begun on a BART extension to San Jose and another to Antioch, dubbed eBART, and a possible extension to Livermore is being studied.
Mallett says that for West Contra Costa, an alignment along I-80 is the only one that makes sense.
"In today's 21st century, the development in suburban communities follows freeways, not railroads," he said. "The freeway is where everyone goes to get in and out of town. If we want to competitively capture that market of travelers, we must be in the near vicinity of the freeway. Commuters will not inconvenience themselves by traveling an extra length (to the railroad) to access transit."
He said El Cerrito Del Norte is the most congested regional transfer station in the BART system. Another statistic he likes to cite: Nearly 60 percent of the ridership at El Cerrito Del Norte consists of commuters who reside north of El Cerrito and Richmond.
"The likelihood of someone using transit is in part a function of how far they must travel to access transit," Mallett said.
He is the first to note that extending BART north along the I-80 corridor presents formidable challenges of right-of-way acquisition as well as physical constraints.
There also are funding constraints, such as minimum residential density standards around new stations that are a condition of funding through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. But other BART extensions faced many similar challenges but became reality with political will, he noted.
There are, as yet, no studies or cost estimates for a BART extension along the I-80 corridor, Mallett said, adding all he wants to do at this point is start the discussion.
"As momentum develops, I think funding would come," he said.
He believes his November win shows that the idea, which was a prominent part of his platform, resonates with voters -- and with some officials.
"The blessings that come with (BART) are economic development, which much of the region has seen from (BART), particularly in Central County, but we haven't seen," Councilman Peter Murray said after a presentation by Mallett at the Jan. 15 Pinole City Council meeting.
Mayor Debbie Long added that the consensus at a recent mayors' conference was that cities with transit centers were "more sustainable" and more walkable.
"They were everything that we would like, but we're at a disadvantage," Long said, without such a transit center.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.
Who: Zakhary Mallett
Hometown: El Sobrante
Education: B.A., urban studies, Stanford University; master of city planning, UC Berkeley
Claim to Fame: Elected to BART board in November