Bridge tolls to rise, airport connector has another shot at federal funds
on January 29, 2010
On the day President Barack Obama was delivering the State of Union speech emphasizing jobs and the economy, 2,800 miles away from the Capitol carpenters and union members gathered in front of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission building in Oakland. Their mission was to save the $70 million in stimulus money that would put them back to work.
“What do we want?” yelled one union member.
“Jobs for Oakland now! The airport connector must go through now!” more than 300 jobless union members responded in support of the Oakland Airport Connector project.
That day’s meeting turned out to be long and painful, as the commissioners voted on two critical resolutions that will significantly affect the economy in the entire Bay Area region: the fate of the airport connector project and a hike in bridge tolls.
In the earlier part of the meeting, the commissioners unanimously voted to increase the tolls for state-owned Bay Area bridges. Staring July 1, crossing the Bay Bridge will cost $6 during commute hours, and the new toll for driving across the other six bridges will be $5. (Currently, the tolls are $4.) Carpoolers will now pay $2.5 to cross the bridges, although free toll has been the biggest incentives for carpoolers especially during the recession. The Golden Gate Bridge, maintained by Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, will not be affected by these fee hikes.
The toll increase is designed to generate $165 million in revenue. Randy Rentschler, a spokesperson for MTC, said the additional revenue is needed to pay for seismic strengthening of the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges. He also said toll revenue has been declining because more people carpool. “When Wall Street crashed, they hurt us, too,” he said.
During the meeting’s public comment period, many bicyclists expressed support for the toll increase, saying that it would make the bridges safer. They also asked if the increased revenue could be used to build a bike path on the Bay Bridge western span, but MTC officials said state law does not allow for such use.
Carpoolers expressed concerns over the new toll, and asked the commissioners to reduce or eliminate it. “If a carpool charge is begun, there will be no benefit for people to pick up passengers before driving into the city,” said Rachel Chang, who usually spends 20 to 30 minutes picking up riders. “The system will collapse and there will be more congestion.”
Commissioners Chris Daly of San Francisco and Tom Bates of Berkeley argued that the toll increase will destroy the carpooling culture and the toll should be reduced to $2, but the motion was voted down.
The commission next turned to discussion of how to hedge the risk of losing the $70 million in federal stimulus money already committed to the Oakland Airport Connector, a 30-year project to connect Bay Area Rapid Transit directly to the Oakland International Airport.
Last week, the Federal Transit Administration sent a letter to BART officials, warning them that the project proposal did not comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, because it failed to do an equity analysis determining whether the change in service from a bus to rail airport connection have a disproportionate impact on minority or low-income patrons of the service. The administration warned that it would withdraw money if BART fails to remedy any Title VI deficiencies.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act was implemented in 1962 to prevent any public funds from being be spent in any fashion that encourages, entrenches, subsidizes or results in discrimination based on race, color or national origin.
Steve Heminger, the Executive Director of the Bay Area Toll Authority, which did analysis of this issue, said losing $70 million is significant but still “manageable.” Heminger proposed two options for the MTC to reduce the risk of losing money. One option was for the commission to reaffirm its commitment of the stimulus money to the airport connector project and accept the risk that fund could be lost to the region if BART fails to act. Another option would be for the commission to withdraw the stimulus funds from the connector project and instead use the funds for rehabilitation and preventative maintenance projects. Heminger says that there is still time to redirect the money. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires the FTA to withdraw the money by March 5th if the project cannot meet federal legal requirements.
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums made a rare appearance at the commission meeting to personally support the project. The connector project is estimated to bring thousands of jobs to Oakland, where the unemployment rate stood at 16.3 percent as of December 2009. “I support the OAC project. But I do take the civil rights seriously. I think FTA and BART should work together closely to solve the problems,” Dellums said.
Dorothy Dugger, general manager of the San Francisco Rapid Transit District said that BART has been in close talks with the Federal Transit Administration since it received the letter and the agency will submit a report to the FTA by next week.
More than 300 people attended the meeting because the OAC project would impact the entire Bay Area and workers of every income bracket. About 90 minutes were spent on public comments; people expressed their support for OAC or argued for diverting the money to fund the bankrupt Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District—the same arguments that many people made when the transit agencies were voting for the project last year.
Opponents of the project argued that BART should not gamble $70 million. “This is not Las Vegas. Why do you risk $70 million?” said Scott Denman, president of the Genesis Interfaith Regional Project, a social justice organization.
Many opponents of the project agreed, saying money should spent on the operation of regional transit systems, such as the AC Transit bus system, which faces a $35 million deficit and has had to lay off workers, cut service and eliminate routes, affecting the low-income people who depend on the public transit. “The poor people and minorities are always left out. But minority community also have higher expectations,” said Michelle Jordan, an East Oakland resident.
Proponents of the OAC project argued that the project will bring jobs and money to Oakland. “I have been unemployed for many months and my family lost health insurance. I have to go back to work,” said 29-year old Oakland carpenter Ken Bricks. In Alameda County, 30 percent of construction workers are unemployed.
Others said that it would create a better environment for Oakland. “The OAC project will bring positive economic opportunities for the region and help improve the environment,” said Omar Benjamin, executive director of the Port of Oakland.
However, even a $492 million project would not guarantee jobs for all the workers at the meeting. “Basic transit service does not mean jobs. Most of you promised with jobs will not get jobs. That is not the way math works,” said Commissioner Daly. Daly said he favors using the $70 million fund for operation and maintenance. “This is a structural problem, and there is no help from Sacramento,” he said.
Commissioner Bates agreed with Daly, arguing for rapid bus alternatives to provide the same kind of service. “Rapid bus creates lots of workers. This is a [transit] workers versus [construction] workers situation,” he said.
Commissioner James P. Spering of Solano County suggested a motion that if the action plan by BART is not approved by FTA by February 16, the commission will recommend that plan be amended before the March 5 FTA deadline, redirecting the money to BART operations and maintenance. “We have to keep the $70 million in the region,” said Spering. Scott Haggerty, the chair of the commission and a strong supporter of the OAC project, supported Spering’s motion, saying that the regional transit system is so broke that each transit agency would use up the money diverted from the OAC project in three months. “OAC is a vision of MTC and a legacy project that our children’s generation will use in the future,” he said.
Before the vote, Haggerty thanked everybody who came to the meeting. “It is true that you might not get the job. I hope you will get the job, but you are the one who showed up today to fight for it,” he said.
The MTC commissioners voted 11-5 to approve the motion, supporting the plan to use $70 million for the OAC project with the condition that BART’s action plan must be approved by the Federal Transit Administration by February 16. Otherwise, BART will have to reprogram the money for operation and maintenance to meet the administration’s March 5 deadline.
The MTC commission is scheduled to meet again on February 17. “I will be a different person on February 17th if BART would not comply with FTA,” said Haggerty, adjourning the meeting.
$2.50 Carpools, all bridges.
$5 All state bridges except for the Bay Bridge.
$6 Bay Bridge during peak commute hours from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
$4 Bay Bridge at non-peak hours and $5 on weekends
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