The half-cent sales tax that county voters approved for the next 25 years to pay for transportation projects is expected to bring in nearly a half billion dollars less than originally projected ($1.5 billion instead of nearly $2 billion) due to residents cutting back on their purchases. Sales tax revenue is down 15 percent in the past year.
In addition, construction of new homes and businesses in East County has slowed to a trickle. As a result, transportation fees on new development that are earmarked for the widening of Highway 4 are estimated to drop by $50 million (only about $30 million is now expected versus the original $80 million projection).
Consequently, East County’s two major transportation projects – the continued widening of Highway 4 through Antioch to the Bypass and the eBART light rail line from the Bay Point BART station to Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg and Hillcrest Avenue in Antioch – would be in jeopardy and probably killed were nothing done.
To head off that crisis, Transplan, which consists of representatives from East County cities and county government, unanimously agreed on Sept. 10 to transfer the funds slated for several other local transporation projects to the highway widening/eBART projects.
They agreed to cut the $18 million for local street maintenance, delete the $11 million for eBART parking and access to the eBART stations, eliminate the $29 million for transit-oriented projects such as the mixed-use villages envisioned near the eBART stations, and slash the $4 million slated for other East County road projects.
That will still leave a nearly $60 million shortfall based on the original cost estimates for eBART. But planners are expecting construction bids to come in lower than estimated, as has been the case with other major construction projects recently. eBART, which originally was expected to cost a little more than $500 million, might cost $40-$55 million less than that “due to the favorable bidding climate,” said Project Manager Ellen Smith.
She told the Transplan members that failure to transfer the funds from the other East County projects would jeopardize both eBART and the highway widening, which are considered “joined at the hip” because the eBART line is designed to travel down the median of the widened highway. Bay Area and state transportation agencies, which are contributing significant funding to both projects, “are looking for a solid commitment, and want to see that a sacrifice is being made in East County to keep this project alive,” Smith said.
But before Brentwood Mayor Bob Taylor agreed to transfer the funds, he wanted assurance from Smith that the BART board wouldn’t change its mind on constructing eBART in East County. “If East County gives up everything, which is what we are doing, … we need those funds to stay on Highway 4 eBART,” he said.
Smith assured him that the BART directors would not give East County’s funds to another BART project elsewhere in the Bay Area.
Taylor, seeking further assurance, asked, “That wouldn’t happen over your dead body?”
Smith responded, “That’s a strong statement, but I’ll make that commitment.”
Taylor explained his caution, saying, “BART is notorious for adding lines (elsewhere). I want to make sure this line comes down Highway 4. I cannot have Highway 4 built without BART. We are joined at the hip. It has to be done. But it has to be done jointly.”
Everyone agreed that if additional funding were found in the coming years, the other transportation projects would get it.
“The projects will not go away,” said County Supervisor Federal Glover. “They will continue to be on the list (of transportation projects). When the revenue comes back in, those projects would be continued. We have a cash flow issue (for the highway widening and eBART), and need to go forward this evening to make sure we don’t miss any other (construction) deadlines. It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in this downturn in the economy, but it is what it is and we need to try to move forward to make the best of the situation.”
The construction bidding process for the next phase of the highway widening from Loveridge to Somersville roads will begin in November. The highway will be widened to four lanes in each direction, including car-pool lanes. Construction is expected to begin next year and take three years to complete. The work this year has focused on relocating and constructing gas and electricity lines to accommodate the widening.