The Metropolitan Transportation Commission on Wednesday said $70 million in federal stimulus funding denied to the Bay Area Rapid Transit Agency for the Oakland Airport Connecter project, intended to link BART directly to the airport, will be reallocated for regional rail and bus improvements instead.
The MTC said BART will get $17 million for other projects, including replacing seat cushions and flooring in some train cars. The Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority is getting $12 million to replace hybrid buses. Other funds will go to Caltrain for seismic upgrades on railroad bridges, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will receive $17 million for a truck rebuilding program and preventative maintenance.
On January 15, the Federal Transportation Administration notified BART that there were significant equity concerns with the proposed airport connector project, which is estimated to cost riders up to $6 each way, and said that the plan violated Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The MTC asked BART to work on a civil rights action plan to address these concerns by February 16, saying that if BART failed to offer a solution, the commission would divert the money to other transit agencies to keep the $70 million in the region.
Yet even before the MTC deadline, last week federal officials rejected BART’s request to use the $70 million for the airport connector project, saying there was no way BART could comply with civil rights regulations by the deadline of September 30, when all undistributed stimulus funds must be returned to the federal treasury. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff wrote in a letter to BART that the agency was concerned that moving forward with the project would tie it up in litigation for too long.
For BART, that $70 million would have been critical to the $492 million airport connector project. “BART is extremely disappointed and dismayed that FTA will not use its discretion to allow stimulus funding to the Oakland Airport Connector while BART is working to remedy Title VI deficiencies,” said BART General Manager Dorothy W. Dugger in an statement issued on February 12. “BART’s commitment to Title VI and civil rights is strong and abiding and we are fully committed to completing and correcting any deficiencies in our program. The action plan we submitted to FTA makes that clear,” her statement continued.
Yet opponents of the airport connector were delighted by the decision to divert the $70 million to other agencies. “We are very glad that FTA is taking it seriously, and that we feel the stimulus is protect existing jobs, services and riders of the region. Our region is going back to planning good transit project that benefits the East Oakland community,” said John Knox White, program director for TransForm, a non-profit organization that advocates for public transportation and a pedestrian friendly community in the Bay Area.
TransForm, along with other non-profit groups such as the Urban Habitat Program and the Genesis Interfaith Regional Project, filed civil rights complaint against BART last September, saying that BART has violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts by failing to do a research on how the fare and service changes would impact low-income and minority populations. In its January letter to BART, the FTA expressed the same concern.
The opponents of the connector project are sympathetic to construction workers who otherwise might have gotten jobs, but felt the $70 million could create and save more jobs if it went to other public transit agencies. “It is choice between 100,000 transit jobs and creating couple of hundred construction jobs,” said Knox White, referring to the 689 direct and indirect jobs that the airport connector was estimated to create for the construction industry.
However, FTA’s rejection of the connector project was a big blow construction workers, because workers expected that the project would create jobs. “We are obviously disappointed on the decision that BART didn’t get the money. We thought the $70 million stimulus money was to put people back to work,” said Paul Cohen, director of public and governmental relations at the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council. “The FTA says the civil rights effect is on low-income people, but we are talking about ‘no-income’ people here,” said Cohen referring to the unemployment rate of the construction workers in Alameda County, which is currently around 30 percent.
However, BART has not given up the airport connector project. Asked what BART is doing to close $70 million gap, James Allison of BART’s media & public affairs department said BART is exploring funding and technical options, but did not elaborate on what the options might be.