CA: Key Step for BART to San Jose

The Valley Transportation Authority is poised to approve a $772 million contract for construction of the BART extension to San Jose -- the biggest contract awarded in the decades-long dream of linking the South Bay with the heavily used commuter train.

Now all that stands in the way of BART commuters being able to travel south of Fremont is federal funding -- money the VTA thinks it will get but which is beholden to the nation's fiscal crisis and political deadlock in Washington, D.C.

"This is a big deal by any standard," said VTA board member and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. "It means thousands of jobs and is really a huge step in keeping the BART project moving.

"When we get the federal funding agreement in February, that's it. It will happen."

The VTA vote on a construction bid for the project will come at its Dec. 8 board meeting and is certain to be approved. That sets the stage for the much-anticipated decision by the Federal Transit Administration in February to determine how much if any federal aid will be earmarked for the $2.3 billion, 10-mile line from Warm Springs to the Berryessa area of San Jose.

The VTA is seeking $900 million from the FTA, which gave the BART extension a recommended rating in 2010. Money would be parceled out over several years, with the VTA hoping for a first payment of $130 million.

Construction would then begin in the spring or summer.

The federal agency will not comment on how much money it might send Santa Clara County's way under a special program called New Starts or whether the federal deficit could derail funding plans. The budget agreement hammered out by Congress last year calls for reducing funding for new train lines by $400 million nationwide.

Despite the federal budget crunch, VTA officials are confident they'll find the money. General Manager Michael Burns met with federal officials recently and said he was told "everything seems to be in order for an agreement."

The bid the VTA is expected to approve, by Skanska-Shimmick-Herzog, was nearly $75 million under the $849 million estimate. The joint venture group said it could finish work by late 2016, meaning the BART line could open more than a year ahead of the projected 2018 schedule.

"That saves us money as well as them," said Carolyn Gonot, the VTA's chief program officer for the BART extension.

Work would be done on what is called the "design-build method" and could shave off six months of work and save $85 million.

The usual method calls for designing the entire project and then beginning construction. Under the design-build method, the construction agency would have leeway on designing part of the project and building it while design work continued on other segments.

The construction firm could receive $100,000 in incentive pay for each day it finishes ahead schedule.

The 10-mile line would have stations in Milpitas and the Berryessa district of San Jose, east of Highway 101. Original plans called for a $6.1 billion, 16-mile extension from Alameda County through downtown San Jose and on to Santa Clara. There is no timetable for completing that second stretch.

While the VTA's hopes of landing $900 million in federal funding for BART might seem like a lot, the amount is in line with other transit funding deals across the country since 2005.

Washington, D.C., received the same amount for a $3.1 billion rail line, Seattle got $813 million for a $2 billion project, New York $2.6 billion for a $7.4 billion line on its East Side, and Dallas $700 million for a $1.4 billion light-rail project.

But the country's economic crisis could reduce the amount of aid from Washington. The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee threatens to slash funds to new rail lines -- cuts that could slow the flow of money for BART and 27 other projects across the country.

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

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