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BART votes to approve Oakland airport connector

on December 11, 2009

After three hours of public comment and discussion yesterday, the BART Board of Directors voted 7 to 1 to approve the $492 million Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) elevated rail line. Construction is scheduled to begin in mid-2010 and be completed by 2013. BART selected the winning contractors to build and operate the new monorail-style train despite vocal opposition from community and transit advocates who argued the transit agency’s selection process was based on out-of-date information and required further analysis.

“We’ve asked you to look at the impact of the train fare, we’ve asked you to look at the fact that there is no intermediate stop, and we’ve asked you to look at an alternative,” said Bob Allen of Urban Habitat, a think tank that evaluates urban housing and transit issues. “If you choose to vote today to move forward with this project, it means you own it. You own the outcome.”

Urban Habitat and its transit advocacy partner, Transform, recently highlighted the decision by the Federal Transit Administration’s Office of Civil Rights to review social equity aspects of BART’s current projects within the next several months. A ruling against BART could lead to delays to projects that receive federal funding, including the connector. BART has said the federal audit is “routine” and will not interrupt the project.

Despite the objections, proponents of the project turned out in force, arguing for the benefits of job creation in Oakland and of linking the airport to the expanding BART transit system. Henry Chang, former councilmember-at-large for the City of Oakland, said this was “the right time” to begin the connector project. “With construction costs, this is now the best you are going to get,” he said. “This project is not just for Oakland, but for the whole Bay region.”

To build the project, BART selected Flatiron/Parsons, a joint-venture construction team with experience in bridges and other large-scale industrial projects. Flatiron/Parsons is now scheduled to design and build the 3.2-mile elevated rail line running above Hegenberger Road linking the Oakland Coliseum BART station with the airport. By a similar 7-1 margin, the board also awarded a 20-year operations contract to Doppelmayr Cable Car, an Austrian/Swiss manager of automated rail lines. BART Director Tom Radulovich cast the single dissenting vote.

The BART Board’s vote brings to a close a decades-long effort by the transit agency to gather the necessary political and financial support to build the rail line. Previous private-public partnerships foundered, leaving the project dormant until transit money in the 2009 federal stimulus bill revived interest in the plan. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has directed $70 million in stimulus money toward the project. The money comes attached with a stipulation that the project commences in 2010.

Yesterday’s meeting at BART headquarters felt similar to the Oakland City Council’s October 6 meeting, when the council voted in symbolic support for the connector. The BART boardroom Thursday was packed with interested parties ready to speak for or against the rail connector plan. Representatives from construction and business interests spoke in favor of the jobs that would be created, while community activists and transit groups questioned whether BART had adequately considered lower-cost alternatives and factored in potentially negative environmental and economic impacts on nearby communities in East Oakland.

Andreas Cluver, secretary treasurer of the Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council, said the project was “very exciting” for the construction workers he represented, more than 30 percent of whom he said were unemployed. BART’s September 2009 federal loan application to the Federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Program stated that the connector would create “approximately 689 direct and indirect jobs during the construction period” plus an additional 45 long-term jobs for maintenance and operation. Documents distributed by BART at Thursday’s board meeting said they anticipated the $492 million project would create between 2,500 and 5,000 direct or indirect jobs and 27 full-time jobs once the project is complete. Critics contend these numbers are inflated and that the smaller 689 jobs figure is more accurate.

Recognizing that the board’s decision was a largely foregone conclusion, John Knox White, program director for the transit advocate organization Transform, said he was not asking the board to deny the project, but argued that the agency’s public process was “broken.”

“I’m a pragmatist,” he said. “But I am asking this board to follow through on the promises this board made in May to the citizens of the district, when you said that once the bids were in, you would have a discussion of what this project is.”

Rita Mitchell of the social justice advocacy group Genesis raised concerns that the costs of maintaining the connector project would draw funds away from BART’s core train system. She also said low-income populations—including airport workers who currently use the $3 AirBART bus—would be negatively affected by a new $6 one-way fare to the airport when the connector begins operation.

Linton Johnson, chief spokesman for BART, confirmed that BART and the Port of Oakland, which operates Oakland International Airport, intended to discontinue the AirBART bus service when the connector opens. Johnson said that the connector would not be the only option for airport employees to commute to work, however. “AC Transit runs buses to the airport,” Johnson said. “Airport workers could take the bus to the airport, and many do so now.”

The newly agreed-upon contract between BART and the port includes a clause guaranteeing that the port will not create a parallel shuttle or bus service when the connector is in operation. “I don’t think either party [BART or the Port of Oakland] is interested in running a parallel service that would act as a drain against the interests of the other,” Johnson said.

In response to budget deficits, AC Transit is planning an 8 percent cut in service across Oakland in 2010. The agency’s most recent service changes call for the Number 50 line to the airport to be split between multiple lines, including the 20, 21, 57 and 75. Line 73 would directly link the airport with the Eastmont Transit Center. The effect AC Transit’s service changes would have on people traveling to and from the airport remains uncertain.

Genesis’ Mitchell asked the BART Board to delay their vote on the airport connector until January 19, 2010, when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is officially required to delegate the federal funds for the project. “In the meantime, research and address the social justice concerns of the residents of the Bay Area,” she said.

Randy Rentschler, MTC’s manager of legislation and public affairs, said the deadlines for federal funding were needed as a precaution in case BART is not able to raise enough money for the project. “The deadlines are there on purpose to give BART a fair chance to get this project funded while giving [MTC] the option to obligate the money elsewhere should BART be unable to [raise money] in time.”

Some Oakland City Council members said BART still needs to answer some questions about the connector. In a letter sent to the BART Board of Directors on December 9, Vice Mayor and City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente reminded the board that the City Council’s October 6 vote to support the connector project was contingent on BART meeting three conditions: greater scrutiny over the project’s hiring practices, ticket prices, and the possible inclusion of an intermediate stop between the Oakland Airport and the Coliseum.

“To my knowledge,” the letter reads, “The project coming before you on Thursday morning does not meet these conditions.”

Councilmember Larry Reid attended the morning’s BART Board meeting. While voicing his support for the project, Reid questioned his fellow councilmember’s actions regarding the connector and apologized for the “internal confusion” within the City of Oakland.

“I certainly hope that you respect [De La Fuente’s] letter,” Reid said, “But it is not the letter that he should have written. This is a project that would certainly benefit the entire region, not just the city of Oakland. Please do the right thing.”

Calls to De La Fuente’s office were not returned.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Councilmember Jean Quan said that BART’s vote did not mark the end of the City Council’s involvement in the project. “The city will continue to push BART to maintain the agreed-upon hiring goals,” she said, “And ensure that an intermediate stop is built in the future.”

The single no-vote for the airport connector project came from BART Director Tom Radulovich. Prior to the vote, Radulovich asked BART’s Controller Treasurer Scott Schroeder what direct costs the rail line would have on the system’s core budget. Schroeder said BART is anticipating a 25 percent increase in ridership to the airport as passengers used the connector. The additional income from new riders along the main transit lines to reach the connector would go toward paying back debts incurred in building the connector and ongoing maintenance costs, he said.

“But what’s the number?” Radulovich asked, referring to total revenue raised that would go toward the connector.

“The actual dollar number?” Schroeder replied, “I don’t actually have that off the top of my head. I’d have to dig into the modeling to get you a hard dollar number.”

John Knox White of Transform argued that BART’s financial models for the connector overstate the revenue generated by ridership and require updating. BART’s budget for the 2009 fiscal year indicates that nearly 80 percent of its revenue comes from ridership and sales tax, with the agency making up for the shortfall with borrowing and recent service cutbacks. Knox White argued that there is no money available for BART to shift from its core system to cover the costs of the connector.

“Each new rider costs BART money,” Knox White said. “If they are paying for the OAC, they are not covering the costs to the core system.”

Before voting in favor of the connector, BART Director Gail Murray thanked Transform and other advocacy groups for bringing questions forward and requesting more public opportunities to discuss the project.

“I have come to the conclusion that there has been enough public airing of this project and I feel satisfied about that,” Murray said. “All the information is there and I feel that I’ve been thoroughly briefed to make that decision.”

To reiterate her point, Murray listed multiple public hearings where the connector project was discussed. Despite her expressions of confidence about the decision-making process, some transportation advocacy groups remain dissatisfied with how the final selection of the connector was made.

“The question is not the number of hearings,” said Urban Habitat’s Bob Allen. “The question is what kind of information did the public ask for consistently in those hearings. Transform has consistently asked for more information about ridership and travel time and they have never been able to get it. Today, the Board voted on bids that no one saw.”

1 Comment

  1. […] an option, but you’ll have to wait a few more years for the agency’s vaunted Oakland airport monorail is ready. If cycling is your preferred option, there’ll soon be new bike lanes on MacArthur […]

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