Advocates Upset Stim Money Could Still Fund Oakland Airport Connector

Air_BART.jpgHow will you get to the Oakland Airport in 5 years?

The debate over how to spend the federal transportation stimulus money at the regional level is heating up and may boil over tomorrow morning at the next Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) meeting. 

As we reported here two weeks ago, the nine-county Bay Area will get nearly half a billion in stimulus funds for transportation.  MTC staff originally proposed spending much of it on rehabilitation and operations, with $145 million for two capital expansion projects, the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) and the Transbay Terminal train box.

Now that the final stimulus numbers are in from Washington, with transit funds lower than expected and high-speed rail money much higher than expected, MTC staff has scrapped the proposal to build the train box from the formula funds. 

Transit and social justice advocates are concerned, however, that OAC is still on the table. They argue that it is not a good use of funds, and that the $70 million dollars proposed by MTC should go instead to transit operations.  Genesis, a local affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, will hold a rally and press conference before the Wednesday meeting to decry the proposal, calling it a moral issue that deprives AC Transit bus riders of service and threatens fare increases.

AC Transit, for its part, admitted that the stimulus money would be helpful for combating the $57 million budget deficit it expects to run by end of 2010, but said that the agency has been considering fare increases and service cuts since spring of 2008, well before the stimulus package was a reality. 

"The more money we get to close the budget gap, the less severe the consequences will be," said AC Transit spokesperson Clarence Johnson.  "It's not a matter of any one source of money completely satisfying our needs, but every nickel counts."

Given current transit operator funding ratios, AC Transit's share of the the $70 million proposed for the OAC would amount to less than 2 percent of its total budget.  Transform provides the overall breakdown:

  • AC Transit - $6.65 million
  • BART - $16.94 million
  • CalTrain - $2.66 million
  • GG Transit - $2.45 million
  • Muni - $17.43 million
  • Sam Trans - $2.03 million
  • VTA - $12.25 million
  • Small Operators - $9.8 million

MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler argued that it's a policy choice, but not a moral one.  "To a certain extent, we need to be grateful to have this argument.  The federal stimulus money is a one-time deal we weren't expecting a couple months ago and the challenge is how much we put into current consumption and how much we put into the future.  We're borrowing from our kids, so how much do we want to leave to our kids."

Carli Paine of Transform suggested that the current elevated train option for OAC is not the most cost-effective way to spend the stimulus funds and said that the MTC should "step back and look at the alternatives," adding the current proposal is "not a good use of funds, not good governance."  Paine suggested the MTC revisit at-grade BRT options for the connector that would do better at opening the Hegenberger corridor with access to all the points of interest between BART and the airport.

In the long run, Paine admitted, the fiscal stimulus spending debate shouldn't distract from the pressing need to reestablish the State Transit Assistance (STA) program so that municipalities across the state can rely on steady funding.  She said Transform recently opened an office in Sacramento for that purpose with a goal of building a new alliance of groups to join in the effort to develop long-term solutions to fund public transportation.

Wednesday's MTC general meeting will start at 10:00 am at 101 Eighth Street in Oakland, above the Lake Merritt BART Station.  Genesis will hold its press conference immediately before the meeting, at 9:30 am.

Flickr photo: isaacgertman