"The way I see it is that getting eBART sooner is better than getting nothing for years," said Nix. "Any eBART will still make a big difference to East County by taking traffic off the congested Highway 4 corridor and spur local job development.
"To me that's a positive, not a negative. The real story is that five years ago we had nothing. No project. No money and no plan. Today we have unanimous agreement, money and BART's full support for the project."
The 21-mile eBART light-rail extension had been planned to connect the Bay Point BART station with stations in Pittsburg, Antioch, Oakley, Brentwood and Byron beginning in 2010 at a cost of $377 million.
eBART is now expected to cost $443 million just to get to the Hillcrest Avenue station in Antioch. And that cost excludes the acquisition of right-of-way land from the Union Pacific Railroad, currently being negotiated. BART officials say that escalating construction costs, upgraded requirements, and inflation are to blame for the price hike.
"Of course, we're not happy about this," said Joel Keller, a BART board member and former mayor of Antioch. "A natural question to ask is: why has the price gone up? But more money is not being spent deliberately. We're having to deal with normal cost increases as well as numerous requests for additional enhancements to the project."
Keller explained that the $377 million original estimate presented to Transplan in December of 2002 was for a single track running from Pittsburg BART to Byron.
"Since then, various cities have been going over the original plan BART proposed with a fine-tooth comb and have been asking for additional upgrades," said Keller. "That's significantly added to the cost."
Those additional costs include the construction of three grade separations (overpass and underpass crossings) in Antioch at a cost of $60 million in order to minimize the impact on traffic flows, building cross-platform connectors at the BART station, an upgraded flyover at Loveridge Road, and the laying of a two-track system with exclusive right-of-way.
Keller said that inflation is also to blame.
"If we use an inflation rate of 4 percent from our original estimate, then it adds around 28 percent to the cost of the project," he said, adding that if funding and construction go smoothly, "it's likely we'll have eBART to Hillcrest running by 2010 or 2011."
While some public officials bemoaned the downsizing, believing that far East County residents are being short-changed once again on BART service, Nix acknowledged that building any transit or highway is an expensive undertaking and raising money remains a "work in progress."
"eBART, like other transportation projects, is always hungry for more money," he said. "We knew even five years ago we couldn't do full BART build-out to Byron."
But Nix pointed out that the project comes with some hidden "big ticket items."
"There's the grade separations in Antioch," he said. "Plus we need a maintenance yard. And because we're not buying stations down the line, the price of land keeps going up. All these are high-cost items that aren't apparently visible."
There's also the not-so-insignificant cost of purchasing right-of-way land from Union Pacific Railroad, with both parties locked in ongoing negotiations. Union Pacific still owns the 32-mile track that runs from Loveridge Road in Pittsburg to Tracy. eBART planners are keen to make use of this corridor and tracks in order to substantially lower the cost of construction.
Nix also pointed out that the original plan drawn up for eBART five years ago included the provision for a "phased" approach from BART to Hillcrest to Byron as the availability of money allows.
"It was never intended to be a full, definitive engineering design," he said. "With a project like this, you plan out a large, full-scale project with all the bells and whistles, and then build various parts of it as necessary as reality intrudes. It always does, and generally that's a financial limitation.
"Therefore, if we're now looking to start with an interim station at Hillcrest, that shouldn't be seen as a negative, since it was in the original plan."
Nix acknowledged that eBART only going to Hillcrest "is not perfect and that the ideal solution everybody wants is real BART to Hillcrest. That would be plenty, as it would take a huge bulk of cars off Highway 4. But it's a lot more expensive and harder to do. So we've got the next best possible thing."
Keller agreed that building eBART to Hillcrest will still make a big impact on transit convenience by taking a substantial number of cars off congested roads during peak commutes.
"There's a large enough catchment area to make a difference in terms of diverting traffic off Highway 4," he said. "People will find it more convenient than driving to BART."
The good news is that eBART seems to have funding in place to complete the phase-one construction up to Hillcrest. The project has already secured $96 million from the Bay Area bridge toll increase and $150 million from the Measure J half-cent sales tax to cover transportation costs.
Keller said that around $178 million of funding might be available from a variety of other sources, including voter-approved transportation bonds.
"We're confident that a phase to Hillcrest is affordable and achievable with the money we've earmarked so far," he said.
Nix pointed out that it is imperative to get the state's transportation bond approved in this November's ballot.
"It's important for eBART and Contra Costa County, and people need to vote for it," he said. "The bottom line is we're still in a good place. The good news is that we have a lot (of money) and have good prospects of getting the rest.
"We've gone from zero to $437 million in five years to run this thing up to Hillcrest. Plus things are happening with the money we've already got. We're in the middle of a full $20 million preliminary engineering and environmental study."
Keller stressed that the Hillcrest portion is the first phase of the eBART interim project, and that its revised plan does not preclude a future extension as a secondary phases.
"We haven't lost sight of our original goal to go beyond Hillcrest," he said. "In fact, we're negotiating with Union Pacific to buy the right-of-way land from Loveridge all the way to Tracy with an eye toward extending the service in the future."
But some other impacted community members were less sanguine about a cut-down eBART system.
Bob Doran, president of Discovery Bay's Community Services District, admitted he hadn't heard anything official from BART about its revised eBART plans. But he said that if it's true, then Discovery Bay residents will not be happy having to drive to Antioch just to get on an eBART train to Bay Point.
"They won't like that one bit," he said.
Doran said he would be most happy with an eBART station located at Marsh Creek Road, which is one of the stations originally earmarked by planners. "The Marsh Creek site is ideally located. It's wide open and already partly developed."
But knowing how slowly the wheels of bureaucracy turn, Doran admitted that he doesn't expect eBART to reach Byron "for 10 years at least."
John Greitzer, a senior transportation planner affiliated with Transplan, acknowledged that eBART would now have to be phased to fit with available funding over time. But he insisted the project has not stalled, in spite of the higher costs that BART had quoted.
"The project has not stopped by any means; in fact, the environmental review is progressing well," said Greitzer. "But this is all very recent information and the changes proposed in the eBART are so new that the Transplan committee doesn't have a reaction or position on it right now."
Greitzer said the committee would have a chance to fully digest the updated costs and their implications when BART officials and the eBART Partnership Policy Advisory Committee provide more details at what may be a fiery Transplan meeting next week.
"Cost increases are never a good thing," said Greitzer. "But it's not all doom and gloom. This is all part of an ongoing planning process and it's way too early to make any pronouncements."
The Transplan meeting will be at the Tri Delta Transit building, 801 Wilbur Ave. in Antioch, on Thursday, Oct. 12 beginning at 6:30 p.m.