Despite Outcry, MTC Board Approves OAK Connector Funds

Proud_Bus_Rider.jpgAdvocates packed the MTC hearing room
Transportation and social justice advocates packed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) board meeting today to demand that the agency not spend a proposed $70 million of federal stimulus money on the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project.  MTC commissioners heard testimony for over two hours from some of the more than one hundred members of the public who were mostly opposed to the OAC, claiming it would take money from the operations of AC Transit and other transit operators. 

The tremendous turnout and high energy of the public speakers gave incoming MTC Chairman Scott Haggerty a lot to deal with for his first meeting as chair, though in the end the vote went as expected.  With the exception of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, every voting MTC commissioner approved the OAC allocation within the larger spending proposal by staff (PDF). 

Many MTC Commissioners expressed their concern for transit riders but seemed content to vote for the OAC with the provision advocated by MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger that any money for expansion projects that wasn't successfully obligated by the end of June would be turned over to the operators in accordance with funding formulas.

Reverend Scott Denman, president of Genesis, a local affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, bemoaned the dismal state of AC Transit's operational budget and urged the MTC not to put any money into an expansion project that he argued wouldn't benefit the greatest number of Bay Area residents.  He prompted some of the only laughter of the day when he said, "I do believe the (OAC] is shovel ready.  Let's dig the grave, toss it in, and I will personally do the last rites."

The minority of speakers who supported the OAC project were the parties who planned it and would build it, including Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid, BART, ACTIA, the California Alliance for Jobs, and construction unions, including San Francisco local 22 and Oakland local 713.

Councilmember Reid and the construction workers stressed that the project, which passed an environmental review, had been vetted by the community and planned for more than fifteen years and would provide jobs to those building it. 

BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger argued that funding the project was not a covert form of racism or classism, as many members of the public contended, but that BART ridership is reflective of the income and ethnic demographics of the region. 

In a conversation with Streetsblog yesterday, BART project manager Kathy Mayo said BART was confident that it could finance the remaining $70-100 million needed to build the project, either from Federal TIFIA funds or from private sources.  Mayo said that the bidding environment was as competitive as she could remember and that one of the original bidding teams, which included Parsons Brinkerhoff, Merrill Lynch, Bombardier, and Flatiron Construction, had expressed strong interest in a second chance to compete for the contract.

Despite expressing outrage over the final outcome, the advocates vowed to carry on the fight for more transit funding at the state and federal levels.  Urban Habitat's Lindsay Imai said that Genesis members would be attending AC Transit's board meeting later in the evening and that they would develop a strategy to fight for restoration of the State Transit Assistance fund and for more transit money in the re-authorization of the federal Transportation Act this fall.

Dispute Over Transbay Terminal Train Box

When MTC staff revised its proposal to fund the Transbay Terminal train box from formula funds, the agency was working under the assumption that it would lobby Washington to allocate the $400 million needed to build it from the $8 billion high speed rail pot added at President Obama's behest in the final stimulus bill.  The MTC also assumed all the parties involved with the project would want the money.

In a surprise revelation that angered several commissioners, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) said in testimony that they couldn't agree over the design and capacity objectives of the train box.  CHSRA's Mehdi Morshed said that they are not ready to sign off on the train box because they don't think it will have the capacity needed for the high speed rail service, a concern that had not previously been public.

San Francisco MTC Commissioner John Rubin was aghast, saying the significance of the train box project to the region was unparalleled and that never in his time at the MTC had he heard such discombobulated testimony from staff and directors of the same agency and between agencies that had agreed to work together. 

"I'm mystified by the testimony of the TJPA and their staff," he said.  "They need to get on the same page."

Dave Snyder of SPUR echoed the concern, saying, "I was disappointed by the hesitation of the HSRA.  Right now the dispute between the TJPA and the HSRA is not helpful and ought to be resolved immediately to get the train box built."

MTC Commissioners defered one of the staff resolutions until the dispute could be settled and directed Heminger to serve as mediator to expedite the negotiations.  The MTC hoped to take up the matter at its next board meeting in March.