Work could start soon on costly BART airport tram
on September 16, 2010
The controversial Oakland Airport Connector, a proposed tram that would connect the Coliseum BART station to Oakland International Airport, may soon be under construction after a decades-long debate. But the project has vocal opponents, and before ground is broken BART must still secure the last third of the connector’s funding and satisfy a stringent deadline it has set for itself.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area transit authority responsible for disbursing state funding, recently breathed new life into BART’s efforts to build the connector when it voted September 8 to allocate $20 million to the project. “For the first time in the 25-year history of this project, we may be seeing shovels hit the ground in the next month or two,” said BART spokesman Linton Johnson.
The connector, which would run the 3.1 miles to the airport along an elevated track, would replace the AirBART shuttle buses that currently run a similar route on surface roads.
The sum allotted by MTC would make up only a small portion of the estimated $484 million the project will cost in total, but Johnson said it represents one of the project’s last unconfirmed sources of funding. Besides the pending allotment from MTC, BART is hoping to receive another $25 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and a $105 million loan from the US Department of Transportation (DOT). Not counting these pending funds, BART has so far raised about $334 million.
Although the MTC vote was good news to the airport connector’s proponents, the allocation is not yet final. Before the funds can be disbursed, the California Transportation Commission (CTC), the state agency responsible for allocating funds for infrastructure projects, has to give the ultimate approval on the MTC allotment. The commission will meet September 22 to weigh the issue.
Connector supporters say the current AirBART shuttle is unreliable and subject to traffic delays. They say a tram will help elevate Oakland’s airport to “world-class” status and offer greater speed and reliability, especially to Oakland’s business travelers—a group that constitutes 90 percent of the current AirBART’s passengers today.
Opponents call the project a boondoggle, and say its estimated cost has risen drastically since the tram was first proposed in the 1980s. They say the AirBART shuttle could be much less expensively modified to improve service—with a dedicated rapid bus transit lane along the freeway, for example—and that the money raised for a tram would be much better spent strengthening existing transit options. “Every time you turn around, AC Transit is cutting service and raising fares,” said Richard Marcantonio, a managing attorney at Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based legal advocacy group that is opposed to the project. BART’s tram fund could be used to mitigate these cuts, Marcantonio said.
The project stumbled earlier this year when BART failed to secure a $70 million stimulus grant in February. The Federal Transit Administration, charged with awarding such grants, found that BART had not sufficiently communicated with minority communities that would have been affected by the project. The transit district has tried to address this issue by forming an extensive public participation plan, but has still had to seek funding elsewhere.
The timing of CTC’s vote this month puts BART in an awkward position. For the moment, the transit district has secured commitments from the winning bidders for the project’s construction and operation contracts. But those bids expire on September 21, a day before BART planners will know whether they can count on receiving MTC’s contribution. And even if that MTC decision were accelerated, there is no telling when the potential funding from the FTA or DOT will be confirmed.
Signing the contracts prematurely could leave BART committed to paying for a project it can’t afford, if any of the agencies offering funds do not follow through. But waiting too long could mean having to renegotiate both the construction and maintenance contracts, likely at higher rates.
Keeping the project alive as its funding is negotiated may require BART officials to take a leap of faith. “We have been told by multiple people at the highest levels that it’s a sure thing,” Johnson said, referring to the pending contributions from MTC, the FTA, and the DOT, “but we don’t have that in writing.” But while the temptation to act swiftly is strong, “you don’t sign the contract til you have the money in hand,” Johnson said.
Even if MTC’s allocation is not approved, the project could still go forward, since BART would still have access to the $334 million it has raised so far. “Twenty million dollars shouldn’t ruin a half-billion-dollar project,” Johnson said. “We have a backup plan,” he added, though he declined to describe its particulars.
Meanwhile, BART has announced a special meeting of its board of directors this Thursday morning, in part to “re-affirm” both airport connector contracts until they can officially be signed. Opponents plan to take the opportunity to reiterate their grievances with the project.
Among them will be members of TransForm, a local transit advocacy group. John Knox White, the group’s program director, expressed concern that BART riders may bear the cost of the project if any pending source of funding dries up after construction begins. “What would compel [BART’s] board to award a contract that has more risk than ever?” he asked.
Public Advocates, the legal advocacy group, say their objection goes beyond the airport connector. “It’s a much bigger issue than this particular project,” Marcantonio said.” “It’s a question of MTC siphoning funds from existing transit to expand BART,” a practice he calls MTC’s “modus operandi.”
If and when construction starts, planners predict the tram will take four years to complete.
Image: A computer-assisted rendering of the Oakland Airport Connector en route./ Photo courtesy of BART
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