Despite promises, the $484 million Oakland Airport Connector yields few local jobs

A long strip of concrete barriers and machinery marks the future Oakland airport connector's route down Hegenberger Road.

A long strip of concrete barriers and machinery marks the future Oakland airport connector's route down Hegenberger Road.

“It requires a lot of physical strength and it wears on the body,” said Tiffany West, 31, of her work as a carpenter’s apprentice on the Oakland Airport Connector project. Every Monday through Friday, from 7 am to 3:30 pm, West is somewhere along Hegenberger Road between the Oakland Coliseum and the airport shoveling debris, fine-grading sites for paving or building the footings for the connector’s elevated guideway. She earns about $22 per hour, the prevailing wage for a carpenter’s apprentice in the Bay Area.

The construction project she’s working on—a $484 million electric tram that will carry passengers from the Coliseum BART station to Oakland airport in 15 minutes or less—officially began a year ago, but West has been on board for just over a month. She was recommended for the job by the director of the Cypress Mandela job training center, where she began her carpenter training this summer. But she’s not sure how long she’ll be assigned to the project.

“I don’t know if they ever let anybody stay forever,” West said from behind a pair of smudged safety glasses. It had been raining on and off all day, and she rubbed her gloved hands together for warmth against the late afternoon chill. Her blue hoodie was damp, and her work boots were muddy from trudging through the newly-turned earth of the construction site. “I do get concerned that when this project is over,” she said, “will I have work somewhere else?”

On this there’s no guarantee. Though West is employed by Flatiron Construction, one of two primary contractors on the airport tram project, she doesn’t have an individual contract with the company. Instead, her work assignments are managed by her local labor union. For now, she’ll work until the Flatiron project managers decide they don’t need her anymore—which could be weeks or months, depending on the changing scope of work and how many other qualified candidate recommendations they receive. When her time is up, her name will go to the bottom of the assignment waiting list at her union hall. But if the project managers like her, they can request her for future projects—a possibility she’s counting on. “I work really, really hard,” she said. “So they’ll keep me.”

On that particular day, West gathered with about 40 other workers in hardhats and orange mesh vests for a safety training at the site of the airport connector’s future maintenance facility, near the intersection of Hegenberger Road and Doolittle Drive. By mid-2013, the maintenance facility is supposed to connect via underground steel tube to the airport, and via aboveground steel guideway to the Coliseum BART station. For now, a long strip of turned earth and cement barricades cutting through Hegenberger marks the extent of the construction, which began last November amid ongoing disputes about whether the community needed the costly airport connector at all.

Back when Alameda County voters approved funding for the connector project in 2000, BART promised to build a state-of-the-art transit system, dramatically shorten travel times, and create enough jobs to warrant the then-$132 million price tag. The number and nature of those jobs, however, has fluctuated wildly in the last 10 years.

What exactly is a “job?”

In 2009, BART publicity material predicted that the project would eventually create 13,000 jobs. A federal grant application from the same period stated that it would generate 689 “direct and indirect jobs during the construction period.” BART officials have argued that the differing estimates refer to different types of jobs, but critics contend that the changing figures are little more than baseless guesses. Today, BART strives to be more accurate, and estimates the project will create between 2,500 and 9,000 jobs—depending on the methodology one uses to calculate the figure.

Now, a year after construction began, the actual number of jobs created is still difficult to sum up simply—as is BART’s definition of a “job.” Is it full-time or part-time? Short-term or permanent? Are these new jobs for out-of-work laborers or just better jobs for an employed few?

It depends, a bit, on who’s counting, and how they’re doing it.

The agency offers one measure: total construction hours. Over the last year, according to BART connector project manager Tom Dunscombe, the connector used 33,469 construction hours, which equates to 22 full-time jobs. But Lillie Sunday, a manager with Parsons, the other major contracting company, said that those 33,469 hours were actually shared by 226 different workers. Meanwhile, at a project advisory committee meeting held Tuesday, Flatiron construction manager Dan Elshire said that the project has employed about 250 workers to date.

None of this matters much to West, a single mother who finds both her work schedule and her pay rate suitable to raising her 8-year-old son.

“A lot of people in Oakland really need jobs,” she said. “So for something to come directly to us like this, I think that’s wonderful.”

But BART Board of Directors member Robert Raburn, whose district encompasses the Oakland Airport Connector, calls those job numbers “miniscule” when compared to what was initially promised. He said the inconsistency of estimates and the opaqueness with which the project has progressed are also causes for concern.

“We’re not being fully transparent,” Raburn said of the agency and the project staff, which Raburn said has failed to be accountable to the public about spending, among other issues.   “I’m trying to do what I can to make sure that we are,” he said. “And they’re trying to keep me in the dark, because they don’t trust me.”

Since voters elected Raburn to BART’s nine-person Board of Directors last year, he has done everything in his power to kill, curtail or constrain the costly project. He unseated incumbent and airport connector champion Carol Anne Ward by running for her board seat on an anti-connector platform. Last April, he tried to put the project up for reconsideration by the board. He has, by his own admission, “mouthed off” about the connector at many board meetings.

But after project expenditures jumped from $70 million to $100 million in just two weeks last spring (in what Raburn called an attempt to “scare off any effort to delay the project”), he resigned himself to the role of reluctant watchdog.

“My opinion about the project has not changed,” he said. “It doesn’t represent the highest priority for my district or the public. Nevertheless, given that I’m in office and the project’s moving forward—essentially it’s become ‘too big to fail,’ and I’m doing everything I can to make sure the project is delivered on time, under budget and that it includes the jobs that are promised.”

In short, he said: “We’re stuck with this turkey.”

A long, contentious history for the Oakland Airport Connector

Controversy, internal dispute and public outcry have plagued the airport connector project since the beginning—not least because of swelling cost projections. In 2009, when a divided Oakland City Council voted to move forward with the project, cost estimates had tripled—from the original $132 million to $500 million.

Then came allegations of racial discrimination, later that year, and a federal civil rights review.

“It was a knock-down, drag-out fight,” said BART’s Dunscombe of the agency’s multi-year battle with community and transportation advocacy groups TRANSFORM, Urban Habitat and the Genesis Interfaith Regional Project, all of which sought to kill the project. In 2009, the organizations filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Authority, arguing that the costly connector could result in reduced transit services for minority populations in Oakland, who make up the majority of those who ride the bus. They said the project would hold no benefit for the city’s sizable low-income population, “who can’t even afford plane tickets,” as the complainants put it.

The FTA agreed. In 2010, the Authority determined that the project violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and revoked $70 million in stimulus funds already allocated to the connector. The loss of federal funding was a blow to the project, as BART had few other funding sources and steadily ballooning costs. In the end, BART managed to offset the lost stimulus funds by $35 million from new sources, including the Metropolitan Transportation Commision.

But the agency must still source $105 million of the project’s cost by either taking out a federal loan or floating a bond—a debt that, according to Raburn, “will be borne by our passengers.” That number could even climb as high as $150 million, he said, adding that he’s making every effort to ensure that it doesn’t.

Following the FTA ruling, BART officials felt they needed to regain the public’s trust, and assumed that garnering the support of labor unions would help them do so.

“There was a lot of opposition on this project, and they needed a lot of labor to come and support it,” said Andreas Cluver, the director of the Alameda County Building Trades Council, which represents local construction unions and saw BART’s request as an opportunity to secure a major labor agreement with the agency. “The stars kind of lined up on this project,” Cluver said. “We said, ‘We’ll support this if we can make sure our folks will be the ones working on it.’ We wanted to make sure that our members are the ones doing the work.”

So, to gain the support of the unions, BART and the project contractors entered into a “project stabilization agreement” with the Building Trades Council and its labor unions, which outlined local job creation goals and guidelines. The agreement states, among other provisions, that all workers must be union members; that 50 percent of all hours worked on the project must go to “local area residents” from Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco counties; and that 25 percent must go to Oakland residents.

Raburn reviews those numbers quarterly and confirmed this month that, proportionally, most of those hiring goals are being met.

The most recent update, on October 31, reports that 60 percent of workers hail from surrounding counties and 28 percent are from Oakland—exceeding local hiring goals. The updates also show that, while individual contractors and trades are not uniformly meeting goals, enough are surpassing them that the sum balances out.

“There are some trades that are not quite meeting the goals or are neck-and-neck, but it’s still early,” Raburn said, adding that the agreement “is probably the best labor agreement we’ve ever signed in terms of bringing solid oversight to the public.”

The trickier part is figuring out how the percentages translate into actual construction jobs—and whether those jobs benefit the community enough to warrant the $484 million price tag.

Lofty promises of job creation yield confusing results

On a whiteboard in the airport connector project offices, Dunscombe drew up the numbers for the project: If all those construction hours for the last year really had gone into 22 full-time jobs, then under the agreement, 13 would have gone to local county residents, and six of those to Oakland residents.

But because most of the laborers assigned to the project since last November have only worked part-time or in weeks-long stints—due to the nature of construction work, and the pace of this project—“It’s nearly impossible to know exactly how many jobs were created,” Dunscombe said.

Flatiron construction manager Dan Elshire concurred. The way that construction projects work, he said, “you will be on this job for three weeks, then the scope of work changes and you go somewhere else.” Most workers on the project so far have been specialized—electricians, soil surveyors, pile drivers, etc.—and when their particular jobs end, their union halls send them to another project elsewhere.

Parsons compliance manager Lillie Sunday said Dunscombe’s calculations don’t tell the whole story. According to Parson’s payroll records, she said, the project’s total construction hours are divided among 226 part-time or short-term workers. If that number holds, then the project has sourced 135 workers from surrounding counties and 63 from Oakland.

“It’s a big difference from the 2,000 jobs they promised to create,” said John Knox-White, executive director of TRANSFORM. “This project is yet another one of those BART projects where they are promising that the outcome is going to be bigger than it actually is.”

“The job numbers are inconsistent,” said Bob Allen, transportation director for Urban Habitat. “They were really promising direct, local construction jobs. That’s what (BART) chose to make this about. They used that as a deliberate political tactic. They brought out construction workers, mostly people of color, whom they promised to create jobs for.”

Allen also said a handful of short-term construction jobs don’t outweigh the hundreds of long-term service jobs that could have been created if the money allocated to the connector project had instead been used to expand or improve other, more vital transit service.

Cluver, of the Building Trades Council, doesn’t disagree. While he says the connector project has been good to unionized construction workers—thanks to the labor agreement and its hiring provisions—he acknowledges that big construction projects direct funds away from existing transit services.

“It’s a zero-sum game with public resources,” Cluver said. “We don’t have enough money for transportation, period. So to fund something like this, you have to steal from Peter to pay Paul.”

The connector project’s staff people maintain that they’re not the bad guys. “We’re doing our best,” said Elshire. “There are a lot of people who worked hard to make this happen. We’re committed to this.”

And while the construction numbers may seem low right now, Dunscombe added, they don’t account for the indirect construction and manufacturing jobs supported by the project. Workers who produce and deliver the plywood, for example, may not be Flatiron employees, but Flatiron supports them with business, he said.

“Guys hauling the cement—those are another factor,” Sunday added. “Trucking is another.” The contractors haven’t been tracking trucking hours, she said, but will begin to do so next quarter, at which point the jobs numbers will increase.

“I have 100 office workers here,” Duncscombe said. “We’re hiring people from Oakland, and that’s not reflected in the numbers.”

Critics are still not convinced that BART staffers are doing their best to create the promised jobs.  Their case in point: The airport connector’s steel guideway—one of the costliest elements of the project—is being built by a company in Washington state. BART had promised it would be built in California, but Duncscombe said the Stockton company originally selected for the job was “totally booked up.” Few facilities, moreover, are capable of meeting the strict construction standards of a transportation agency like BART, he said.

“There really aren’t any facilities that can do this in Oakland,” Dunscombe said. “There are 30 to 50 welders at Thompson Steel, in Washington, welding this thing together instead of us having our guys doing it here. This is a very sophisticated tubular guideway, and Thompson Steel is very experienced.”

If you build it…will they come?

Dunscombe argues that the larger East Bay community wants—and needs—the airport connector. He is one of its prospective riders, in fact. Living in El Cerrito, he often takes the existing AirBART system to get to the Oakland airport, and he says he is all too familiar with the shuttle’s inadequacies.

“I religiously look at my watch as soon as the BART door opens until I get to the airport doors,” he said. “It usually takes about 20 to 25 minutes to travel three miles.” The airport connector, by contrast, is supposed to take 15 minutes or less. But ultimately, he said, it’s not just about time. The “absolute consistency” it offers will justify its cost, he said.

Back at the construction site on Hegenberger, the workers are ambivalent about the project. Tiffany West, the carpenter’s apprentice, doesn’t know if she’ll ever actually have a reason to ride the airport connector but she is nevertheless grateful for the work it has brought her.

Others are confident that, even without the airport connector, they would find work with other projects. Kaiser Permanente is rebuilding its Oakland medical center and the Port of Oakland is preparing for the demolition and remediation of the old Oakland Army Base—and both projects have local hiring goals.

“I can go anywhere and do anything,” said Charles Jones, 31, who lives in East Oakland. Though he’s only been on the connector project for three months, he’s formally trained, OSHA certified and the kind of multi-skilled worker who tends to rise to the top of hire lists—especially when local hiring agreements are in place. If the airport connector died tomorrow, he would have his pick of projects, he said. But given the choice, he’d rather build a transit system than dig a ditch. “Why fly with the pigeons,” he said, “when you can soar with the eagles?”

Mark Vincent Grant, 47, shares that sentiment. A pile driver by trade, Grant drove the first pile for the airport connector project about three months ago—at the special request of the project superintendent—and is proud of it. He doubts he’ll ever ride the airport connector (“the bus is cheaper,” he said) but, in his mind, the airport connector stands to be a Bay Area landmark akin to the BART system and even the Bay Bridge. He hopes to be part of that legacy.

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