1998 letter from MTC invents $3 billion
price for rail on Bay Bridge

A year before the rail study was begun, the Deputy Executive Director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) wrote a letter replying to questions from State Senator Quentin Kopp. Kopp was then Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and the public voice raised in opposition to rail on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. An initiative proposed by Emeryville Mayor Bukowski, and later passed by two-to-one margins in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, urged consideration of re-establishing passenger rail service across the bridge in light of the planned extensive retrofit of the west span and the opportunity to rebuild the east span. This letter creates the impression that a rail retrofit of the four-mile bridge would cost as much as recreating an historic 66-mile transit system. These are thoroughly distinct propositions, but the author manages to equate them. Our comments on the points in this letter are given as footnote links.


August 17, 1998

The Honorable Quentin L. Kopp
California State Senate
State Capitol, Room 2057
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Senator Kopp:

In reply to your letter of August 10, 1998 requesting MTC 'estimates" on the impact of instituting rail service on the Bay Bridge, most of the questions you pose are difficult to answer definitively without performing a detailed planning and engineering analysis. However, based on the information available to us at present, let me respond to your questions in the order you raised them.

  1. The time delay [a] and related safety risk [b] associated with a redesign of the currently accepted Bay Bridge replacement project, including time for necessary reviews, public hearings, and reengineering.

    Caltrans' current schedule calls for completion of design by July 1999, beginning construction in March 2000, and completing construction in 2004. Assuming that funds could be made available to finance any redesign of the new eastern span and existing western span to include
    rail service [c], the delays caused by additional environmental review, design work, and public hearings for incorporating light rail service on both spans of the bridge could be 18-24 months. Incorporating heavy rail service [d] would not only entail additional environmental and public review but conceivably a different bridge type selection [e] for the new eastern span due to the much heavier loadings. Thus, redesigning for heavy rail service could result in delays of 30-36 months.

  2. The estimated cost associated with building a light or heavy rail line on the Bay Bridge and the corresponding connector lines to ensure a viable transit service.

    Light and heavy rail are two very different options. The existing bridge was designed to accommodate essentially what we could call light rail today. The new east span is being designed to accommodate similar loadings. Adding light rail to the bridge would require taking one traffic lane and one shoulder in each direction of the new span, and at least one traffic lane—but quite possibly two traffic lanes—in each direction through the existing tunnel and west suspension span.

    According to Harre Demoro’s two-volume history of the Key System trains, The Key Route: Transbay [missing text] Ferry Interurban Press, Glendale, CA, 1985, the old Key Trains operated on 66 miles of track on the bridge and throughout numerous East Bay cities., At current per mile costs of building comparable light rail systems
    ($40-45 million per mile) [ f ], the cost to replicate the Key System would be $2.6-3.0 billion—exclusive of modifications to the tunnel, the western span, and access facilities in [missing text] in San Francisco from the bridge to the Transbay Terminal (which would be substantial) and operating subsidies.

    It is worth elaborating on the extensive access modifications that are not included in the above cost estimate. Access at both ends of the bridge would present a unique engineering challenge. In San Francisco, the existing highway ramps would have to be modified to carry the rail system into the Transbay Terminal. In Oakland, access would have to cross land currently designated for port use and a proposed park at the touchdown of the new eastern span.

    Heavy rail is a totally different proposition. Although there is
    no historical precedent for heavy rail [g] service on the bridge, the cost of instituting such service could exceed the $3 billion estimate for light rail [h] for the following reasons.

    As noted above, the eastern span replacement would have to be redesigned. Two traffic lanes in each direction in the tunnel and on the existing suspension span would be required for rail service, unless the tunnel afnd western span were reconfigured to their pre-1958 state with rail on the lower deck and autos on the top deck—which would restrict the auto capacity of the bridge even further.

    Moreover, since the suspension span originally was designed to accommodate light rail service, it is likely that the western half of the bridge would require further strengthening to carry heavy rail loads. In the alternative, a new tunnel and bridge could be built from the island to San Francisco. Access for heavy rail in San Francisco also would be much more complicated than for light rail, and would probably require the demolition and replacement of a number of highway structures as well as substantial modifications to the Transbay Terminal itself.

  3. The source of funds for the costs noted above and the impact of the use of such funds on other transportation projects slated for the Bay Area.

    Current transportation funding sources identified in MTC’s Regional Transportation Plan are not only fully subscribed for the next 20 years, but will be unable to cover $6.5 billion in costs just to operate and maintain the existing transportation system over that period. Thus, instituting rail service on the bridge would require new taxes or fees. The most likely funding source would be a further increase in bridge tolls.

    The $1 seismic retrofit surcharge on all seven Bay Area State-owned toll bridges is expected to generate
    approximately $115 million per year [ i ]; of this amount, $45 million will be generated on the Bay Bridge alone. The revenue generated by any further toll increases to finance rail service on the bridge could be reduced significantly by two factors: (1) diversion of motorists to other bridges or travel modes due to higher congestion levels caused by removing traffic lanes for rail on the Bay Bridge; and (2) the elasticity associated with higher toll levels. Ignoring these impacts for the moment, however, we estimate that tolls would have to be raised by at least $2 on all state-owned bridges—or by about $6 [ j ] if the project were to be financed by Bay Bridge tolls alone—to finance a $3 billion bond issue for reinstating light rail service on the bridge. The heavy rail option could entail even higher costs [k] and higher toll levels.

  4. The impact on Transbay congestion of eliminating two traffic lanes for the provision of light or heavy rail tracks during peak hours, off-peak hours, and weekends.

    As the question implies, instituting rail service on the Bay Bridge would
    require the removal of 2-4 traffic lanes on the existing western span [ l ] of the bridge. This would reduce the vehicular carrying capacity of the bridge (including for buses and other high occupancy vehicles) by 20-40%.

    Since traffic congestion bears more of a geometric than linear relationship to capacity (i.e., small reductions in capacity can result in large increases in delay), traffic congestion would be expected to increase by considerably more than 20-40%. The increased delay could be mitigated somewhat by diversion of commuters to the new rail service or other transit alternatives in the corridor. Congestion would be worse during peak hours than during off peak hours or weekends.

  5. The ridership estimates for new riders who would use a light or heavy rail service across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco in the west and the Union Pacific railway tracks to Sacramento in the east, or any other proposed transit juncture in the East Bay, as well as an estimate of the ridership reduction on existing transit service.

    We would expect
    modest peak period ridership [m] on any heavy rail service that connected to the Capitols intercity service since 92% of westbound Bay Bridge auto work trips originate in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, which are served by BART and AC Transit Transbay service. The Capitols primarily serve Solano, Yolo, and Sacramento county intercity trips, which comprise a tiny fraction of Bay Bridge peak traffic. If , on the other hand, the proposal were to reinstitute light rail service in the old Key System service area, such service would overlap significantly with existing BART and AC Transit service—indeed, many AC Transit Transbay routes still bear the letter designations of old Key routes. In that case, Bay Bridge rail service might attract more peak period patrons, but many would likely be at the expense of BART or AC Transit. [n]

I hope this information is responsive to your inquiry. If you need further assistance, please contact Steve Heminger of my staff at (510) 464-7810.


William F. Hein [o]

Deputy Executive Director


a) Time delays for this project have already included: seven years to get state funding for a retrofit, two years for MTC commissioners to decide on design modifications, and one year during which the US Navy denied Caltrans permission to do test bores at Yerba Buena Island. Future delays will likely be through political opposition, non-compliance of project with environmental laws, the Navy's continuing refusal to allow violations of the law by Caltrans or MTC, and court battles with the City of San Francisco. So Hein's contention that adding rail would cause delays is putting the cart before the horse. Poor planning, including the neglect of rail, has caused multiple delays and created the necessity to start all over again if the bridge is to be saved from disaster. The U.S. EPA has made the same point to Caltrans.

b) Though Hein does not answer the question of safety risk here, Senator Kopp is referring to the risk of delaying replacement of the current east span should a major earthquake occur before it is replaced. The current estimates are that there is a 70% chance of such an event in the next 30 years. The U.S. Geological Survey makes it clear that by "major earthquake" they mean one considerably stronger than the 1989 Loma Prieta Quake that caused part of the current eastern span to collapse.

c) He means here trains such as light rail or BART.

d) The use of the term "heavy rail" is very confusing because it at times refers to freight trains, which can be very heavy. Here it refers to heavy passenger rail, such as an Amtrak or high speed train. While heavy passenger rail is up to 50% heavier than light rail, this is a very small addition to the total load on the bridge, only an extra 2 1/2%. Only passenger rail has been seriously considered on the Bay Bridge, and more recent discussion about heavy rail refers almost always to heavy passenger rail. It would not take any more time or strengthening to accommodate this kind of "heavy rail." In fact, by replacing the current bridge deck with lightweight modern building materials, passenger rail could be added while decreasing the total weight of the bridge.

e) A different type selection means that the design for MTC's proposed East span replacement would have to be scrapped, and the design process begun anew. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement given by Caltrans to the U.S. government stated that a different type selection would be required for either light or heavy rail.

f) A very high figure. A rail specialist at Caltrans says $8-15 million per mile is more realistic; also a much shorter feeder system would be sufficient to connect to current tracks.Thus Mr. Hein has inflated this figure five- to ten-fold.

g) In fact, this is completely false. The original (i.e., current) bridge did carry heavy rail in the 1940s.

h) MTC’s preliminary findings were that rail on the Bay Bridge would cost one-fifth of this, about $750 million.

i) No toll increase would be necessary, only an extension of the current $1 toll surcharge by about seven years to cover rail on the bridge, and maybe ten years to include all connections.

j) A $6 toll increase on the Bay Bridge would raise $270 million a year over a 12-year period. This would raise over $3 billion, enough to pay for rail on the bridge and a 200-mile transit system.

k) Heavy passenger rail is more cost effective to add to the bridge, and is simpler and cheaper to connect to the existing rail system.

l) MTC’s recent study which concluded that rail on the bridge is feasible did not consider eliminating lanes. Instead it simply proposed adding a rail deck.

m and n) These figures ignore the population growth projections over the next 20 years, even though the bridge replacement is supposed to last 150 years.

o) Mr. Hein has, after this letter was written, retired; his assistant, Steve Heminger, has replaced him as Deputy Director of MTC (a staff position).

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