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.