Although $523 million has been secured for the $500 million eBART project, not all of that funding will be readily available to finish the project by its expected completion date in 2015. That's the same year that Highway 4 is planned to be widened through Hillcrest Avenue.
A $56 million funding shortfall in the eBART project has been created by East County officials' preference for devoting most of East County's $275 million share of the Measure J half-cent sales tax money to the widening of Highway 4 and the Highway 4 Bypass. $138 million of that money will go to the widening project, and $99 million to the Bypass, leaving only $40 million for eBART's portion of the Measure J funds.
One option to make up that shortfall would be to take $56 million from the Bypass project and give it eBART. Attempting to do that, however, would have led to a pitched battle between road and transit partisans.
Instead, in a rare joint meeting of four East County transportation agencies, it was unanimously agreed to support issuing a $150 million bond in 2015 to make up the eBART funding shortfall.
Failure to fix the eBART funding shortfall could have derailed the whole project because the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is willing to commit $241 million from the bridge toll increase to eBART, provided that the rest of the funding is provided elsewhere to complete the project in 2015.
At the Nov. 8 joint transportation meeting, speaker after speaker reiterated the need for East County to speak as one voice in support of the $150 million bond in order to show the rest of the county and the Bay Area, which are also competing for limited transportation dollars, its commitment to funding and completing eBART from Bay Point to Hillcrest Avenue by 2015.
"Discussion of taking $56 million from the bypass and moving it to eBART would be DOA, dead on arrival, in East Contra Costa County," said Antioch Mayor Don Freitas. "I think, frankly, this is a watershed decision for us to make. I would hope that we could be unanimous in this because the rest of the county is looking at this particular issue. This is a critical, critical issue.
"The recommendation is the appropriate one. We do not transfer $56 million to eBART, but we do embrace the concept of issuing debt in 2015. It achieves MTC's desire to have a fully funded activity. It achieves our desire to move forward with the Bypass and not have any interruption."
County Supervisor Mary Piepho agreed, saying, "The public's perception is that eBART has become the old BART by not materializing. This is an opportunity to change the view and make it more positive as we compete for other projects, like widening Highway 4."
"One person can do one thing. Many people can do many things," said Pittsburg Mayor Ben Johnson. "The people out here have not gotten what they deserve. We have to have it. And we have to have it concurrently with the road being widened, because the traffic is not going to slow down and wait for us."
Oakley City Councilman Brad Nix also endorsed the bond proposal. "I really see the proposal as a win-win," he said. "For East County, the $56 million is available to keep working on the Bypass projects. On the other hand, we have an answer to supply the funding that BART has to have so they can proceed. And that's awesome. It really is."
Freitas tallied up the costs of the three big East County transportation projects that are now in the works: $500 million for eBART, $540 million for the widening of Highway 4, and $350 million for the Highway 4 Bypass.
"So we are talking $1.3 to $1.4 billion that will be expended in seven to eight years. This is our time; the time for East County is now," said Freitas. "I want to underscore one thing that I hope we don't forget: in order for this to be successful, South County and Central County will be sacrificing. This will impact their projects. In the future, we will need to be reciprocal."
In a related issue, a $45 million shortfall currently exists in the Highway 4 widening project due to the extra $125 million needed to widen it farther than originally planned in order to accommodate eBART in the highway median. Freitas said more help is needed from federal legislators to make up that funding shortfall, and Brentwood Mayor Bob Taylor echoed that sentiment.
"I think congressional people need to be put on notice," said Taylor. "(Congresswoman Ellen) Tauscher needs to step up to the plate here and a few other people. Don Freitas and I will get massacred if we don't get Highway 4 done. This is essential."
eBART will provide BART-like trains that will travel along 10 miles of track in the median of Highway 4 between Hillcrest Avenue and the Bay Point BART station. eBART riders will walk across the platform at the Bay Point station to transfer to a waiting BART train.
The plan calls for an eBART station in the highway median at Railroad Avenue. The other station will be either in the median or on the north side of Highway 4 at Hillcrest Avenue. Parking for about 2,600 vehicles will be provided at both stations.
Plans to extend eBART to Oakley, Brentwood and Byron have been put on hold. That is due to the exorbitant costs now that the use of the existing railroad tracks has apparently been ruled out after negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad broke down earlier this year.