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Council to take 2nd look at BART connector project

on September 17, 2009

The Oakland City Council Public Works Committee called Tuesday for a reevaluation of the BART Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) light-rail project and questioned the use of $70 million in federal stimulus money for the long-delayed extension. The committee urged the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission to spend the funding instead on maintaining the region’s struggling public transit systems.

Tuesday’s vote was not an official change in policy by the city, but rather a resolution calling for what amounts to a vote of no-confidence by the City Council on the controversial project.  Tuesday’s meeting was the first official review of the project by the Public Works Committee since 2006.

When initially approved by Alameda County voters in 2000, the proposed airport connector was slated to cost $132 million and link the Oakland Coliseum BART station to Oakland International Airport terminals along a 3.2 mile elevated light-rail. Since then, budget estimates have swelled to $550 million while key elements of the original plan, including two stops along the heavily industrial and commercial corridor, have been pared back.

Citing the high turnout and intense interest in the issue, committee chair Nancy Nadel shifted the connector discussion to the top of the agenda. Representatives from labor unions, advocacy groups, business interests, and private citizens left few open seats in City Hall’s Hearing Room One.

Seventeen public speakers presented differing positions, and competing statistics, on the half-billion dollar public transit project. Council members questioned BART on new estimates concerning ridership, travel time, and the costs to build interim stations, while labor and advocacy groups differed on the number of jobs created, and the fate of federal stimulus funding not allocated to the connector.

Molly McArthur, BART’s Division Manager for Community Relations and Capital Projects, spoke about why the initial plan has changed so much over the last nine years. She noted that the most recent BART studies of the planned connector, which have received much community criticism, represent a worst-case scenario: riders would pay $12 per round trip, and the extension rail would have to carry at least 4,350 riders a day to make a profit. McArthur said the final numbers and fees for travel will depend on future economic activity in the region when the connector is linked to the rest of the BART system.

“We don’t know what the economy is going to do,” McArthur said. “We don’t know, five years out, exactly where that’s going to be. But surely, nobody believes the economy is going to flat-line and stay exactly where it is.”

In an attempt to clarify competing cost, travel, and ridership estimates, Councilmember Pat Kernighan directed Oakland’s Transit Planning Department to review the BART data  and prepare an independent analysis before the October 6 City Council meeting, when the full council will decide whether to change the city’s position on the connector project.

Proponents of the project say it would create jobs and economic development in the region. East Oakland resident Sylvester Grigsby said his community near 69th Avenue and International Boulevard had become “stakeholders” in the project, and that development in the area could lead to future growth.  “When things begin to develop, you have offshoots throughout the community,” Grigsby said. “This project could lead to more funding in the future.”

Michael Quigley, of the California Alliance for Jobs, said his organization supported both the stimulus money’s potential for job creation and the practical benefits of the connector.

“It is a regional transportation improvement to BART that will service the entire Bay Area, and also have a great benefit to Oakland, in that increasing traffic to Oakland Airport will have increased economic development to the East Bay,” he said. “There’s a near-term and short-term benefit.”

But community and transportation advocates questioned the project’s overall costs and impact on the community nearby. Bob Allen, transportation and housing program director of the Oakland-based nonprofit Urban Habitat, said more cost-effective options needed to be considered. “We know it’s a regional project, but it has an impact on the local community,” he said. “Let’s have a serious consideration of all the options.”

After the lengthy public statements concluded, Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Kernighan, and Nadel expressed concern that the cost of the connector would direct funding away from BART’s core needs as the rail was reducing service across its system.

Councilmembers Kernighan, Kaplan, and Brooks

Councilmembers Kernighan, Kaplan, and Brooks

Finally, it was time to vote: with little debate, the committee members unanimously sent the resolution to the larger city council, urging it to reconsider the connector project.

Arguing that the connector will take funds away from local transit priorities, the resolution also urges the Metropolitan Transportation Committee to reconsider the $70 million in stimulus money allocated to the OAC project. The resolution calls on the MTC to “instead prioritize funding for local bus system improvements and a more cost effective and environmentally sound airport connector alternative.”

Two-thirds of the audience left the hearing room shortly after the vote.

The committee’s resolution opposing the connector will now wait for a 10-day period for public review and comment before the full City Council considers the document on October 6.

Whether the resolution is approved by the council or not, the City of Oakland may have limited direct control over the project. BART’s Molly McArthur noted during her statement that the city does not have a financial stake in the project. The disputed $70 million in federal stimulus funding distributed by the MTC is part of a variety of county, state, and federal funding sources BART has gathered for the $550 million dollar project. McArthur said the agency would begin reviewing construction bids on September 22.

Oakland has negotiated the sale of city land along Hegenberger Road to allow for the rail line’s construction, but council staff members, who asked not to be identified, said they thought it highly unlikely that the city would move to alter those agreements.

Outside the hearing room after the vote, opponents of the connector plan hailed the committee’s decision. “We’re very pleased that the resolution is being passed on to the Council,” said Rebecca Saltzman of transit advocacy group TransForm. “We hope the whole council will move in the same direction and come out in opposition to the project.”

Others said that the project’s rising costs and continued delays may have shifted the stance of the City Council away from the connector.  “There will be a sense of skepticism on the City Council,” said Urban Habitat’s Bob Allen. “I think the city council is interested in preserving BART’s core service and doing what is best for the community.  We are really pleased that the city council is finally doing their due diligence on this project.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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