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After long, long night, city council supports BART airport connector

on October 8, 2009

After a long session of impassioned public debate stretching into early Wednesday morning, the Oakland City Council yesterday passed a largely symbolic resolution in support of the Oakland Airport Connector.

When initially approved by Alameda County voters in 2000, the elevated rail line between BART Coliseum Station and the Oakland Airport was slated to cost $132 million. 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.

The council’s support hinged on several caveats requiring BART to provide greater scrutiny over the project’s hiring practices and ticket prices, as well as the possible inclusion of an intermediate stop between Oakland Airport and the Coliseum. It is unclear what tools the city has to ensure BART meets these requirements as the project moves forward.

The Council’s late-night motion came after nearly three hours of fierce debate over the airport connector’s price tag and economic effects on the city. When the council took up the issue at 9:55pm Tuesday evening, four hours into its regular meeting, 104 speaker cards had been filed to comment on the connector issue. Some speakers ceded their time to allow others to speak beyond the one-minute time limit, yet by the end of the night more than sixty regional residents, activists, and business representative had weighed in on the project.

The debate focused on two issues: whether a project of this magnitude was appropriate in a time of struggling local transportation services, and whether the connector would create enough jobs to be worth its $500 million price tag. In the nearly 10 years since Alameda County voted on the connector, BART has collected funding from a combination of sources, including regional bridge tolls, sales taxes, state funding, federal transportation assistance and federal stimulus money.

Members of local building and trade unions, dressed in bright orange and yellow, came out in force at the start of the session, filling the council chamber and galleries and applauding as their representatives argued that a federally-supported public works project would provide much-needed economic development.

Paul Cohen, Director of Public and Governmental Relations at the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, spoke in favor of the connector in the interest of creating jobs. “We now have 25 percent of our membership out of work,” said Cohen. “This is why we are urging every public agency to give people the opportunity to dig themselves out.”

Cohen and other proponents of the project characterized the elevated rail line as an economic engine for the region, essential to keeping Oakland Airport a regional transit hub competitive with airports in San Francisco or San Jose. Omar Benjamin, Executive Director of the Port of Oakland, said a reliable and dependable rail link to the regional transit system was a valuable marketing tool in attracting airlines to fly out of Oakland Airport.

Representatives from the regional transportation agencies Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Alameda County Transportation Improvement Authority (ACTIA), which together have committed $318 million to the project, including $70 million in 2009 federal stimulus funds, argued that the project was “shovel ready” and could commence within the next year. Dorothy Dugger, BART’s General Manager, said the agency “could not be receiving bids in a better environment,” indicating that the four companies submitting proposals under consideration have bid under the $500 estimated price tag in order to win the project. Dugger estimated that there could be cost-savings on the project, but would not discuss specifics while the proposals were under review.

John Knox White, of transit policy advocacy group TransForm, argued that the connector was poorly designed and too expensive, considering the number of jobs that would be created by the project. A page from BART’s 2009 federal loan application distributed by Councilmember Kaplan’s staff during the session listed the connector creating “approximately 689 direct and indirect jobs during the construction period” plus an additional 45 long-term jobs for maintenance and operation. When Councilmember Kaplan questioned these figures versus the nearly 13,000 estimated jobs listed in BART’s publicity material, BART’s Dorothy Duger attempted to clarify, saying the application was “not very well written” and that the 689 estimate was for jobs created each year during the four-year construction project.

With fewer stops than the AirBART bus, longer travel time, and a $6 one way fare, Knox White argued the project was costing more but providing less. Knox White and other advocates who spoke to council noted that the potential short term construction jobs created for this project would come at the cost of a loss of long-term transit jobs as BART and AC Transit were forced to cut services.

Council members Patricia Kernighan, Jane Brunner, and Jean Quan questioned whether funding gathered for this project would remain in Oakland should the project be stopped. Randy Rentschler, Director for Legislation and Public Affairs at the Metropolitan Transit Commission, said most of the funding would not. “MTC resolutions clearly state if funding is not obligated in a timely manner by BART for this project, those moneys will be redirected to other eligible projects within the region,” he said, referring to the nine counties within the Bay Area.

Rentschler was also clear that should the money go back to Alameda County’s ACTIA agency, Oakland would have to compete with other cities in the county for the $89 million infrastructure improvement funding earmarked from the Measure B sales tax.

Should the $70 million in federal stimulus funding programmed toward the connector be redirected, Rentschler said, AC Transit would receive $6.7 million in funding and BART would receive $17 million. AC Transit currently faces an estimated $57 million budget deficit for the year 2010 and has announced a potential 15 percent service cut across the East Bay. BART is facing an estimated $310 million budget deficit over the next four years and has recently cut train service to arrivals every twenty minutes on weekday evenings, weekends and holidays in a bid to conserve funds.

By 1 am, more than half of the council chamber audience had left. The sense of fatigue in the room was palpable.

As council members discussed the issue, it became clear that a resolution supported by Council members Nancy Nadel and Rebecca Kaplan opposing the connector would not receive the five votes needed for approval. The resolution urged the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission to shift $70 million in federal stimulus money away from the controversial project toward the region’s bus and train systems struggling with fiscal crises and service cutbacks.

Vice Mayor Ignacio De La Fuente introduced an alternate motion expressing support for the project and rejecting Kaplan and Nadel’s resolution. The new motion noted that council support was conditional on BART maintaining commitments to hire 25 percent of its construction labor from Oakland city residents and 50 percent from Alameda County at large. Support was also predicated on BART adding one intermediate stop along the rail route and conducting a timely evaluation of the effect of fare rates on ridership and equitable access.

The motion did not include a timetable for completing these requirements, nor did it clarify council actions should BART not meet these conditions.

De La Fuente’s motion echoed sentiments expressed in a letter sent to the council earlier on Tuesday from Mayor Ron Dellums supporting the connector and the project’s “immediate economic opportunities for Oakland residents in dire need of jobs.”

Council members Kaplan and Nadel, sponsors of the resolution opposing the project, abstained from voting for the last-minute substitute motion. “What we have before us is now dramatically different from what was presented to voters in 2000,” said Kaplan. She argued that Oakland’s support 9 years ago was, in part, predicated on the economic benefit coming from an interim stop between Oakland Coliseum and the airport.

Both members questioned the rail project’s overall costs and benefits for the city of Oakland. “Taxpayer dollars are so precious and so rare,” said Nadel. “To spend them on something that doesn’t get you there faster doesn’t make sense.”

Describing her decision as “one of the most difficult” she’d ever had to face while on the council, Kernighan said there are convincing arguments for both sides of this issue, but that the project would benefit the city for “decades and decades,” and that canceling it would hurt Oakland’s reputation. “If we end this at the last minute,” she said “it sends a really scary message to those looking to invest in Oakland.”

The motion passed with five votes in favor and two abstentions. Councilmember Desley Brooks was not in attendance and so did not cast a vote.

When asked Wednesday about what might happen should BART not meet the motion’s conditions, Libby Schaaf, Senior Policy Advisor for De La Fuente’s office, said that BART was receptive to the motion, adding, “We have no reason to believe that the conditions will not be met.”


  1. Mark E. on October 8, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Great story that explores the nuances of a typical and typically-complex public-sector infrastructure investment. As if we needed it, more confirmation that ultra-local reportage can fill a gap that regional papers may miss, and that TV news would disregard in any event. Great job, Oakland North!

  2. […] dustups over parking rules and the BART airport connector in recent months, the Oakland City Council had a relatively quiet meeting last […]

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