BART Airport Connector breaks ground in Oakland
on October 21, 2010
After more than two decades of debate and a recent sprint for the final bits of funding, on Wednesday a group of local, state and federal officials broke ground to mark the start of construction on BART’s long-awaited Oakland Airport Connector. The ceremony, attended by an array of political figures including Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, BART Board President James Fang and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, took place at the Coliseum/Oakland Airport BART station in East Oakland. A dozen officials donned hardhats and gathered around a mound of dirt tidily piled in a corner of the station’s parking lot; in unison, they sank the golden blades of their ceremonial shovels into the earth.
The connector will take the form of an elevated tram line, which will run from the Coliseum station to Oakland International Airport. Planners estimate the project will be complete by early 2015, and the cost of a ride on the tram is yet to be determined. AirBART shuttle buses, which the new connector will replace, passed periodically behind the stage on Wednesday as officials delivered speeches in the BART station’s parking lot.
Proponents of the airport connector say that in addition to making Oakland more appealing to businesses and tourists by simplifying the journey from the airport, the connector’s construction will generate between 2,500 and 5,000 jobs in the city. “We both know this is exactly the time that we need to be investing public funds in infrastructure like this,” said California Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, addressing the audience. “This is the time to spend money.” At least 25 percent of the work created by the project will be awarded to local businesses. “Let’s say you’ve got four cranes,” explained BART spokesman Linton Johnson. “One of those cranes better come from Oakland.”
The groundbreaking comes on the heels of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s (MTC) September decision to allocate $20 million to the project, bringing the total funds BART has raised to $334 million. The agency hopes to receive another $25 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, and a $105 million loan from the US Department of Transportation, but both sources of funding are considered so likely to come through that construction will begin before they are awarded.
The airport connector has been controversial from the start. With a $464 million price tag, some transit advocates say the project is a waste of transit funding that is urgently needed elsewhere in the Bay Area—for example, to stem this year’s significant cuts in AC Transit bus service. “It’s a much bigger issue than this particular project,” said Richard Marcantonio, a managing attorney at Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based legal advocacy group that is opposed to the project, when the project received MTC funding in September. “It’s a question of MTC siphoning funds from existing transit to expand BART.”
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 neighboring 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 still has had to seek funding elsewhere.
Adrienne Tissier, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and vice chair of the MTC, noted that San Francisco International Airport’s passengers are more likely to arrive by public transit than those at any other airport in the country, and expressed a hope that Oakland’s new connector will bring it a similar fortune. “The SFO extension was a home run,” she said, “and the [Oakland Airport Connector] will make it back-to-back homers for the Bay Area.”
Though construction will indeed start as early as February 2011, Wednesday’s groundbreaking was strictly symbolic: officials in attendance thrust their shovels into a tiny mound of dirt in the middle of the Coliseum station’s parking lot. When the real connector is built, it will be on the opposite side of the station.
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