Advocates Want Oakland Airport Connector Funds for Transit Operations

OAC_BRT_2.jpgImage: TransForm

With the civil rights imbroglio between BART and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) making news last week, a problem that could imperil $70 million in federal stimulus funds obligated to the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC), advocates are calling on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to give the stimulus money to cash-strapped transit operators or face the possibility of losing it altogether. The FTA has given BART until March 5th to prepare an action plan to meet Civil Rights Act Title VI requirements to analyze the impacts the OAC fares will have on minority and low-income riders, something BART has so far failed to do.

The gravity of the situation has not been lost on the MTC. In a letter from MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger to his Commissioners about BART and the FTA [PDF], Heminger quoted the stern warning from FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff:

If BART were to fail in any respect to make progress or to meet its deadline as established in the action plan, FTA would have to de-obligate the ARRA funds for the Project and would be prohibited by law from re-obligating those funds to alternative projects in the San Francisco Bay Area [emphasis original].

As a result, Heminger noted in the letter, the Commission has several options, including a reaffirmation of its commitment to the OAC, with the attendant risk of losing the money if BART doesn’t meet it’s obligations to the FTA, or redistribution of the funds to operators according to MTC funding formulas. MTC staff will present its recommendation to Commissioners by this Wednesday’s regular MTC meeting.

Bob Allen, Transportation Director of Urban Habitat, said he found BART Board Director James Fang’s surprise with the FTA ruling to be disingenous at best. According to Allen, he stood
before BART Directors at meetings starting in early 2009 and repeated
the same refrain, "If you don’t do this analysis, you own the outcomes.
You are
responsible for any civil rights outcomes that could come from this."

"The idea that this is a surprise flies in the face of public comment
that has been made since February 2009 by me and by other members of
the public," he said

Given the risk that BART won’t satisfactorily comply with equity analysis, advocates are organizing a rally before the Wednesday MTC meeting, where they will call on the Commissioners to revisit a plan to redistribute the $70 million to transit operators.

"Wednesday’s vote will decide once and for all whether these stimulus funds are about creating the maximum number of jobs and serving people in a down economy, or are gambled on a disastrously expensive and slow pet-project," said TransForm’s John Knox White in a statement. "The Bay Area could lose that $70 million altogether later this spring if and when it is found there is a better alternative to the airport that doesn’t harm low-income commuters. This is not Las Vegas; the Bay Area simply can’t accept a gamble with such bad odds."

If the $70 million were redistributed for transit operations, Muni, for instance, would get enough revenue to
cover the agency’s current deficit. "With MUNI fare increases
and across-the-board service cuts having just gone into effect,"
said Sarah Karlinsky, Deptuty Director of SPUR, in a statement, "We hope that the MTC
makes the most of this opportunity to ensure that more service cuts and
higher increases won’t have to take place in a couple of months.”

The MTC originally had the option of allocating the $70 million in stimulus funds to transit operators last spring, but decided on the OAC as its first priority. At the time, MTC’s Heminger explained to Commissioners that the money could go to transit operators according to established funding formulas should the OAC run into problems. Though transit advocates like TransForm, Urban Habitat, Public Advocates, and Genesis at the time had warned that BART hadn’t done proper equity analysis of the OAC, neither the MTC Commission nor the BART Board believed their argument. Public Advocates later filed an administrative complaint with the FTA over BART’s minority policies and compelled the FTA compliance review of December 2009 that led to this point.

"The
MTC commissioners who voted for the OAC project are the ones that put
things at risk and now they have the chance to make sure the funds stay
in the region for transit service and jobs, said Allen.

The $70 million could be split among all Bay Area operators accordingly (courtesy, TransForm):

  • $17 million to BART, which faces a $25 million budget shortfall and
    will be voting on January 28 on whether or not to cut 74 positions
    layoffs and whether to institute another round of fare increases.
  • $17.5 million to MUNI, which currently faces a $16.9 million
    operating deficit and will be voting on March 2 on a proposal to cut
    230 jobs and implement service cuts.
  • $6.7 million to AC Transit, which plans to cut its service by
    8.4% in March and is looking at a possible further 7% cut later this
    year.
  • $12.2 million to VTA, which has depleted their financial
    reserves and faces a $50 million operating deficit next fiscal year
    despite recently cutting service by 8 percent and raising fares.
  • Another $17 million that would be divided among Caltrain ($2.7
    million), Golden Gate ($2.4 million), SamTrans ($2 million), Vallejo
    ($2 million) and other Bay Area transit systems.

  • mcas

    Re-distributing these funds would be a great way to reverse the years of discriminatory funding MTC has been found guilty of, thanks to the same folks who brought this complaint to the FTA.

    More on the MTC’s history of under-funding transit agencies that provide service to people of color while over-funding services to rich, white people: http://urbanhabitat.org/uh/tj/press2006-12-21

  • What a surprise. James Fang is a f*cking idiot. We really need to retire him.

    And another surprise: the MTA board refused to even consider this option to help plug their deficit.

  • In addition to the $70 million in stimulus funds, there is also the seismic retrofit money BART has “loaned” itself to help pay for OAC.

  • Let the cage matches begin …. something tells me high-speed rail is going to be in a similar fight for funds with the SF MTA’s, AC Transits, and SamTranses of California … Dan Walters wrote about HSR’s business plan today .. http://www.sacbee.com/walters/story/2484870.html I hope I see high-speed rail terminating at the Transbay Transit Center in my lifetime, but the economic health of California is in pretty bad shape to be talking about issuing the initial $9.9 billion of Prop 1a bonds from the start …. hail mary hopes for ARRA money.

  • Alan from Berkeley

    Let’s remember that diverting this money — though perhaps a fatal blow to the ill-conceived OAC — need NOT deprive BART of a good airport connector. A simple BRT system would cost less than a third as much to implement, would not require a $12 r/t fare, would be at least as fast, and would provide at least one community-serving intermediate stop on Hegenburger. It’s exactly that analysis that BART arrogantly chose not to provide to the FTA — because they knew all the mitgating alternatives would be seen as superior choices.

    MTC should now recognize that it’s time to fold OAC’s hand and walk away from the boongdoggle table, not double-down on a low-odds $70MM bet.

  • Alexander

    GREAT – why don’t we spend the money on filling the pockets temporarily for transit workers……how about filling them in construction workers pockets and then actually end up with something to show for it at the end of the day. One thing Obama never understood: spend the money on improving the infrastructure not paying off medicare and transit workers that way you actually have a better system when we pull out of the recession. The philosophy that I see displayed belongs more so in heart of European socialism. People think big – as in permanent good – not a few more happy faces.

  • Robo

    This and the SF Muni Central Subway boondoggle makes me wonder who thinks this stuff up, who benefits, and why are such idiotic projects so hard to halt?
    Given the state of the economy in the US, the high unemployment, rube-goldbergian funding, discriminatory health care, and endless illegal wars, European-style socialism looks pretty damned good.

  • Nick

    You are now entering the dawn of a new era in America, that of “fiscal chaos.” This story represents it in so many ways. All I ever wanted was a stupid lane to ride my bike in.

  • @Alexander – if this was something anyone actually wanted, we might agree with you. All this project will “permanently do” is increase BART’s operating deficit – strange but true it costs money to run trains. All public transit is subsidized, but we need to pick and choose the best ROI, this project misses that mark by a mile.

  • “.how about filling them in construction workers pockets and then actually end up with something to show for it at the end of the day. One thing Obama never understood: spend the money on improving the infrastructure not paying off medicare and transit workers that way you actually have a better system when we pull out of the recession.”

    BART’s proposed monorail would not leave us with a “better system”. Far from it.

    The OAC “cable-car” would be slower and require much more operating expense than any other possible solution, including “No-Build” option.

    Try watching the Simpsons ‘Monorail’ episode (starring Leonard Nimoy). Perhaps you’ll learn something….

  • Dave Snyder

    @ Alexander,

    Smart capital projects are definitely worth pursuing even in times of declining budgets and reduced service. The SFMTA should continue with a complete (and not cheap) conversion of its traffic signals to a centrally-controlled transit-priority system. They should build the Geary and Van Ness BRT systems and then more BRT systems to expand the BRT network. They should invest in significant streetscape improvements to facilitate more bicycling. When it comes to the regional rail network, the region should improve its conventional rail, especially the Caltrain corridor, with passing tracks and new stations and more direct connections to BART. It should increase capacity in the Market Street stations, which is at capacity. It should finish the earthquake retrofit so the damn thing works at all after the next moderate earthquake. The list goes on, AND THE OAKLAND AIRPORT CONNECTOR IS NOT ON IT.

    Your point is correct in principle, but not in the specifics of this case.

  • i’d like to use the funds to build bikeable streets in the most transit-dependent areas. that will move us more effectively and more quickly towards Utopia than any other use of the funds.

  • East Lake Biker

    yes, more bike lanes and more service on the bay bridge bike shuttle

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