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BART-to-SFO Getting Up to Speed: Maligned Extension Sees Weekday Average of 37,200 Riders

June 26, 2008

By Will Oremus, Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.

Jun. 26–After years of disappointment and debt, BART’s extension to San Francisco International Airport and Millbrae is finally getting up to speed.

In May, the SFO station’s average daily ridership topped 10,000 for the first time, according to figures released late Wednesday. Overall, the five-station extension in May averaged 37,200 riders per weekday.

That’s a jump of nearly 20 percent in the past year, and more than 50 percent since its disheartening debut in 2003.

It’s still a far cry from the rosy initial projections, which predicted a daily average of 70,000 riders by 2010 on the $1.5 billion line. But the upward trajectory, fueled by high gas prices, heavier freeway congestion and more air traffic at SFO, is encouraging.

“Especially in the last year or so, we’ve been seeing just phenomenal growth,” BART spokesman Linton Johnson said. “We weren’t predicting that we’d get to 10,000 riders per day (at SFO) for quite a while yet.”

Johnson said the milestone came partly because of a unique marketing campaign that allows European travelers to book BART tickets on travel Web sites such as Orbitz and Travelocity. With the weak U.S. dollar, he said, BART’s airport extension is capitalizing on a growth in European tourists in San Francisco.

Other factors include a new long-term airport parking program at the Millbrae station; a new schedule that sends twice as many trains down the extension; and SFO’s recent addition of low-cost airlines such as Southwest and Virgin America.

In the background, of course, are gas prices of more than $4 per gallon, which have brought higher public transit use regionally and nationwide. BART is reporting record ridership, as is Caltrain.

Johnson said it’s misleading to judge the BART extension’s success against planners’ initial assumptions, which pegged daily ridership at 45,000 within the first year. The ongoing shortfall has forced BART and SamTrans to subsidize the line to the tune of tens of millions.

“Those projections could have never taken into account the dot-com bust and 9/11,” Johnson said. “The SFO station was the draw for passenger traffic along the line, and air travel just took a nosedive. Today we’re just now reaching the air traffic levels we saw prior to 9/11.”

Beyond that, he said, Caltrain’s “Baby Bullet” service has “peeled away a lot of the riders” since it began in 2004.

Still, Johnson contended, “The naysayers out there who said this extension wouldn’t be successful are now eating their words.”

E-mail Will Oremus at woremus@dailynewsgroup.com.

GAINING ON IT

Ridership on BART’s five-station extension from Daly City south to the San Francisco Airport and Millbrae is ramping up after a lackluster beginning. Here’s a look at the average weekday ridership each June, beginning with the line’s debut in 2003:

Year Daily ridership

2003* 24,700

2004 27,300

2005 29,100

2006 29,500

2007 32,000

2008 38,500**

— Figures for 2003 are from July, the first full month the line was open.

— *Through June 24

SOURCE: BART

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