“BART to OAK” airport connector to open after years of planning

A soon-to-be extinct AirBART shuttle bus drives past the new "BART to OAK" station about a week before its opening.

A soon-to-be extinct AirBART shuttle bus drives past the new "BART to OAK" station about a week before its opening.

“Coliseum/Oakland International Airport,” the BART operator announces as the train pulls onto the raised platform. Going to catch a plane? You have arrived—almost.

To continue your journey from Oakland to, say, the daily 3:50 p.m. Southwest flight to Seattle, you’ll need to make it to the street level. You’ll walk down the staircase, ride down the escalator, or go hunting for the elevator. At the main level you’ll be funneled through the turnstiles, as in any other BART station exit. The next step is to look for signs for the AirBART shuttle. Those signs direct you past a bank of ticket machines adjacent the San Leandro Street exit, facing the O.co Coliseum. Just outside the exit there’s a sidewalk bus stop—and, very likely, a line.

With $3 either in exact change or loaded onto your paper BART card (“No Clipper,” a large sign admonishes any riders who’ve been using their Clipper card so far), you wait. At this time of day, an AirBART—that’s the luggage-friendly bus that since 1986 has been operated by the airport, which is part of the Port of Oakland—comes every five minutes. It travels city streets along Hegenberger Road for about 3.5 miles to the pickup/drop-off area between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. Usually it takes about 15 minutes.

Starting Saturday, though, the last “step” of your public transit-venture to the airport will look different. Instead of AirBART, a new $484 million connector line will carry you directly from the BART station to the terminal. No street traffic or red lights involved.

A grand opening celebration Friday will officially kick off the new line in advance of Saturday’s debut, with BART memorabilia giveaways, live music at the newly constructed station, and free afternoon rides on the new railway.

Now, instead of descending to the street to catch the bus, you’ll go up to an even higher “Platform 3,” where a new station, looming over San Leandro Street, serves as the pick-up and drop-off for automated connector trains. The trains, like the shuttle buses they’re replacing, are scheduled to arrive about every five minutes. Each is a three-car automated “people-mover” that will take 8 minutes and 30 seconds to reach the airport, moving at about 30 mph. The entire route towers above city streets, mostly following the bus route, ending at a second new station near the airport’s Terminal 1.

“Getting rail connection to international airports is extremely important,” said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional governing body that oversees BART and other Bay Area transportation agencies. San Francisco International Airport has a BART line, and now, after a long time coming, “Oakland deserves this same thing,” Rentschler said.

The new Oakland Airport line has roots in the 1970s, after the BART system first opened in 1972. One of the agency’s first goals was to connect the system to both major Bay Area airports, Oakland International and SFO. The BART connector to SFO started running in 2003, but the process of running cars directly to Oakland International stagnated.

Rentschler said funding has been the perennial issue blocking the connection of Oakland Airport to the BART system. “It was always an issue with trying to cobble together the money,” Rentschler said.

Into the 1980s and 1990s, design plans for an extension to the airport were continuously updated and debated. In 2000, more than 80 percent of Alameda County voters approved Measure B, a half-cent transportation sales tax. A portion of that tax revenue, which was approved through 2022, went to several transportation projects, including BART to OAK, as the new line has been dubbed.

BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost says she considers 2002 the true start of the project timeline, when the BART Board of Directors approved a more final version of the elevated connector line.

In 2009, the board authorized a $492 million joint contract to two design and building firms, Flatiron and Parsons. Both companies specialize in engineering construction and transportation infrastructure. The contractors were tasked with building the stations at both ends, laying 3.4 miles of track and concrete towers along the route, and getting the cable-pulley car system running.

The project was moving along when it hit a funding roadblock. In February, 2010, $70 million of expected federal stimulus dollars fell through after a failed Title VI compliance review. A civil rights complaint in connection with the connector project alleged violation of policy set by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Federal Transit Administration found that BART had not properly analyzed the project’s impact—which included fare, service and construction changes, along with the termination of a bus route—on minorities or low-income residents in the community.

BART had to scramble to fill the $70 million hole. Funding ended up looking more like this: $274.5 million from local sources, $78.9 million from state funding, and only $25 million from federal funding. Construction finally began in March, 2011, and a pre-Thanksgiving opening was set earlier this year.

“We were just able to find another way,” Rentschler said about the funding loss. “It wasn’t helpful, of course. But it didn’t stop it, either.”

The past few weeks have been dedicated to testing the system to ensure everything is up and running in time for Thanksgiving travel, when ridership to airports goes up. “Everything went well with testing,” Trost said. In the last week before opening, she said, BART is “putting everything together,” from signage around the Coliseum station to continuous test runs on the line to notifying customers about the impending end of bus service.

Aside from planning and funding setbacks, critics of the elevated new trackway have raised objections over the decades. Even as Saturday’s inaugural service approaches, community members and a transit advocacy group, TransForm, have voiced opposition to the expensive extension.

Joel Ramos, Oakland-based TransForm’s regional planning director and a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency director, said the new airport connector is a poor use of improvement dollars. Along with the hefty price tag, he said the extension comes at the cost of neglecting the rest of the “crumbling” BART system. “We understand we needed an improved reliable connection, but it could have been done for a fraction of the cost,” Ramos said.

He pointed to repairs and replacements needed on the aging system. “It’s almost painful to ride, because of the horrible shape of the rails and cars,” he said. TransForm advocated for an express bus line that would have eliminated the “reliability” issues BART had with AirBART. Instead, Ramos argues, BART riders “are going to be subsidizing effectively 1 percent of riders.” Of the roughly 400,000 riders using BART each day, only about 3,000 will be taking BART to the Oakland Airport. “Sounds like a really poor use of funding,” he said.

A resigned Ramos said he still wished BART’s directors had looked to other options, such as alternate bus possibilities and using major funding on the main system instead of smaller extensions. “There were many lessons to learn from this project,” Ramos said. “I hope (BART) will apply them to future endeavors.”

Despite the nearly half billion-dollar price tag for the new rail system and the now-doubled fare—$6 one way, once the new train cars start up—Trost touted the project’s impact on jobs and its commitment to using disadvantaged local companies for subcontracting. According to BART reports, 14 of these companies were used for the design and other pre-construction components of the project; more than twice that many were used for the trucking and construction portion.

One such company, Acumen Building Enterprise, an Oakland-based engineering firm, will employ about 25 workers under a 20-year subcontractor agreement to run and maintain the line. Of the 1,508 site workers on the project, 934 were Bay Area residents, according to BART data. Oakland residents made up 271 of those local workers.

Trost also said the connector will shorten what was sometimes a half-hour bus ride during rush hour on city streets, with a route that crossed nine intersections. Plus, she said, riders should appreciate being able to use their Clipper cards all the way. The Clipper-free buses were a source of frustration for many riders, Trost said. The bus system was never updated with card readers after the introduction of Clipper on BART in 2010; Rentschler said BART and MTC decided that because the AirBART buses were short-lived, installing the readers would have been too expensive. “It sounds like it’s easy to stick a machine in,” he said, “but it’s not.”

The current AirBART bus system carries about 2,745 passengers daily, and Trost said that number is expected to increase by 500 people per day in the extension’s second year. She looked to ridership figures on the SFO connector, which she said is the system’s fastest growing line. “You see more and more luggage on the train,” she said, a trend that she expects will continue in Oakland. Trost said BART and the airport believe the smoother transition from BART to the airport will make OAK “more competitive” and a more optimal destination for families, business travelers and others.

The Oakland Airport issued a news release earlier this month, after the November 22 opening date was announced. According to airport staff, 7.5 percent of the approximately 10 million annual passengers at the airport use AirBART to get there. According to the release, the airport “anticipates that this percentage will increase as the new, easy to use system becomes operational.”

On a recent November Friday afternoon, more than a dozen travelers were waiting for the soon-to-be-extinct AirBART shuttle bus while test runs on the new line zoomed by overhead about a block away. While clasping her rolling luggage as she waited to board, Sondra Bertz, 72, said she has been “watching for it for years,” referring to the new BART connector. The St. Louis resident, who visits Oakland frequently, said she thinks it will be an easier journey to the airport. “I like flying into Oakland,” she said. “It will make it even better.”

UC Berkeley student Rebecca Kutlow, 21, said the AirBART bus is always crowded, and that the waiting area is awkward and poorly marked. She flies from Oakland often for visits home to San Diego. While the two women spoke about the almost-open rail connector, another woman about to board the bus that had just pulled up to the stop yelled out, “You can’t use Clipper card!” in what seemed to be a complaint about the incongruent fare payment system to the get to the airport.

While heading out of the Coliseum station turnstiles en route to the AirBART waiting area, Los Angeles resident Grant Hosford, 44, said the new connector will be welcomed by business travelers coming to and from the Bay Area. As a CEO of a learning game company, he said, he heads north often, and always chooses to fly through Oakland instead of SFO. With the quicker, smoother route to the airport opening this weekend, Hosford predicted, “Oakland Airport will become even more popular.”

To celebrate the new addition to the BART system, a preview day will be held Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The opening party includes free rides on the new trains from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., speeches, giveaways, a raffle and entertainment. Napa-based artist Gordon Huether, the artist behind the glass circles, or rondels, adorning the panels at one of the new stations, will see the debut of his public art installation. The glass circles depict shots of aerial Oakland, fitting for airplane travelers. Those traveling to the airport that afternoon will score a free ride on the extension.

For the opening weekend and several weeks following, BART will have ambassadors in yellow vests at the station to help confused or overwhelmed passengers attempting to navigate the new system, Trost said. A step-by-step online video on how to catch the BART to OAK train is also in the works. The ambassadors are just one part of a plan to make it easier to go to the airport, especially for families, Trost said. Even more after Saturday’s opening, “People will look for flights from Oakland,” Trost said.

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