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How Driverless Electric Cars May Factor Into Public Transit

Pittsburg, Calif., has hopped aboard a preliminary plan calling for a transit system that uses driverless electric cars to shuttle passengers to and from bus and Amtrak stations in East Contra Costa County.

Aerial image of rows of parked cars with a connectivity signal in front of each one.
(TNS) — Pittsburg has hopped aboard a preliminary plan calling for a transit system that uses driverless electric cars to shuttle passengers to and from Bay Area BART, bus and Amtrak stations in East Contra Costa County.

The City Council on Monday unanimously agreed to support a public-private partnership model allowing Glydways Inc. to build a multimillion-dollar micro transit network that would complement current bus and rail services in the region and be fully operational by 2030. Brentwood, Oakley, Tri-Delta Transit and the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority have also agreed to support the project.

Under the agreement, Pittsburg will work with private and public agencies to help develop the system, which was touted as convenient and affordable. Customers would hail cars through a phone app or from kiosks along the routes.

The South San Francisco-based company first proposed the concept in East Contra Costa more than a year ago in Oakley. Since then, Pittsburg, Oakley, Brentwood, Antioch Contra Costa County, and the East and Contra Costa Transportation authorities have collaborated on a feasibility study to ensure that the plan, which requires some local funding, will benefit the region.

“This project is as much about economic development and attracting employers as it is a transportation project,” said Habib Shamskhou of Advanced Mobility Group, which conducted the study.

Advanced Mobility Group concluded the proposed 28-mile transit system with 56 boarding locations planned between Pittsburg/Bay Point BART Station and downtown Brentwood is doable. It estimated daily weekday ridership at 33,559 and daily weekend ridership at 5,196.

Glydways proposes to design and build the $450.9 million Pittsburg-to-Brentwood system, partnering with other firms to finance it and using fares and other revenue sources to operate it. In contrast, construction of eBART’s tracks and diesel engines for the Pittsburg-to-Antioch line cost $525 million while that same 10-mile two-way track for a Glydways’ system would cost $89.5 million in 2021 dollars, according to the study.

Under Glydways’ proposal, small driverless electric cars will initially operate on demand along paved pathways linking riders to and from points such as Los Medanos College, the Amtrak station and park-and-ride lots to BART, the Innovation Center @ Brentwood and The Streets of Brentwood shopping center. The operating space can be created from repurposed roads, abandoned railroad, capped canals or newly built elevated pathways, according to the report.

Shamskhou said the study concluded that Glydways’ proposal offers “a real project and a transportation solution for East Contra Costa County for the next 50 years” that should reduce traffic congestion and attract new employees to East Contra Costa County.

And while extending BART or other transit systems could take more than a decade to complete, the micro transit system would take only five years to construct, Shamskhou said.

“It is highly sustainable and can be achieved in a speedy deployment with public-private partnership,” Shamskhou told the council.

“And the biggest advantage is that it will improve the productivity of the Tri Delta Transit (bus) fixture,” he said, noting the system eventually will be able to go directly to customers’ doors. “This is not going to replace that (bus system); it is going to complement that. It will act like a first-mile, last-mile concept to take you to the bus station.”

Mayor Merl Craft, who sits on the Tri Delta Transit Board, said she was “totally impressed with this and very excited to see this opportunity come to East Contra Costa County.”

But before a pilot program could begin in East Contra Costa, the autonomous pods will undergo “proof of concept” testing at Concord’s GoMentum Station, a testing ground for such cars at the former Naval Weapons Station. The half-mile-long testing segment is projected to be completed by this summer, according to officials.

Councilman Juan Banales said he supported the project but was worried that cities like Pittsburg could end up subsidizing the operation until it becomes profitable.

“There’s a lot of folks that are tired with the continuous subsidies that, you know, are asked for in terms of moving that forward with very mixed results,” he said. “And so I think when we look at future transportation systems, we need to be cognizant of the fact that if it is publicly funded, we definitely look to make sure that from a fiscal sustainability point of view, that it is a really good venture for ratepayers.”

Councilman Jelani Killings also supported the project but acknowledged that the system will take some time to secure funding.

“But I think this is going to be good for East County at large,” he added. “I’m excited about this technology coming online, and serving as a part of a solution to addressing our traffic issues and our congestion here in East County and here specifically in Pittsburg.”

© 2021 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.