The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), at its monthly meeting in Oakland today, voted 11-5 to reaffirm its commitment to the Oakland Airport Connector, despite BART’s recent problems with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) over its Title VI civil right requirements for federal stimulus money. The MTC resolution gives BART until February 16th to comply with FTA’s obligations, and if the operator fails to comply, the MTC would redistribute the $70 million to the region’s transit operators.
Elected officials, transit advocates, construction workers, business groups and numerous other speakers gave testimony and debated the merits of the OAC before an overflow audience of at least 200 people
The first speaker was Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, who used impassioned rhetoric about race and equity in an argument to support the OAC. Though he noted that the FTA ruling on BART’s Title VI deficiencies indicated the agency had a long way to go, he said, "Title VI was designed to challenge large organizations to change. That ultimately is what needs to happen here."
Dellums said he spoke with US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff in Washington last week and urged their patience and care in dealing with BART’s Title VI obligations, which he assumed they would.
"Fairness not just about acknowledging the problem, it is about making sure there is a process for resolving this problem," said Dellums. "I asked them for time to resolve this matter."
As for BART, General Manager Dorothy Dugger said they were working around the clock to prepare their OAC action plan, which they expected to give to the FTA by next Wednesday. Beyond the airport connector, Dugger said BART would complete an equity analysis of the 2009 fare increase, ensure ongoing public involvement in its focus on civil rights and equity, expand its limited English proficiency program, and evaluate its established service standards, among other issues.
Dugger also said BART has hired consultants who worked with Houston Metro to help them develop an action plan to complete equity analysis after Metro became the first agency under new FTA rules to be compelled to do a more rigorous civil rights analysis.
Two BART Board Directors, Carol Ward Allen and James Fang, brought up the issue of race and impugned critics of the OAC on racial grounds.
"Frankly, as an African American woman who has dedicated my life to fighting for civil rights, I’m offended the project opponents would use Title VI to kill the project," said Allen. "BART is committed to equity, access, and fairness for all."
When asked to clarify her comment, Allen told Streetsblog after the hearing that "I know that part of the political posturing is, what can we throw at those folks to move our agenda.’"
BART President James Fang went even further in attacking OAC critics. After saying he was "fully confident that we will meet this deadline that you put together and we’re going to work very hard with the FTA to get this done." Fang added, "As an American of Asian ancestry, I too feel the bite, the sarcasm, and the insincerity of this complaint."
Bob Allen of Urban Habitat, one of the OAC opponents who brought the FTA complaint, said that BART and its directors shouldn’t be surprised or upset about the FTA complaint, that they were given ample warning that they hadn’t done enough to comply with stringent new FTA regulations.
"What’s disingenuous and insincere is that they clearly got a letter from us in June saying, ‘here are the elements in the FTA circular and you haven’t complied with them," said Allen. "This is classic spin from BART."
"I think what’s insincere is when you use a bunch of workers to advance your project goals and then you don’t do the analysis necessary to get them the jobs you say you care so much about."
Claudia Hudson, President of Amalgamated Transit Union 192 at AC Transit, lamented the divisiveness of the proceedings and wished the unions were on the same side of the issue.
"Sorry, if BART did the right thing from the beginning, following FTA, we wouldn’t be here today," said Hudson. "It doesn’t make any sense for carpenters, iron workers, bus operators and mechanics to stand up here and pit against each other."
Perhaps knowing the MTC would vote in support of BART for the February 16th deadline, the few dissenting commissioners used their time on a soapbox to decry the entire transit funding situation from the regional up to the state level.
MTC Commissioner and San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly said that transit operators needed the money and the risk of hoping BART would fulfill its obligations to the FTA was too great.
"Perhaps it’s surprising that one of the biggest political risk-takers in the region in terms of elected officials is going to argue the safe, prudent fiscal path," joked Daly. "We have the responsibility to as prudently and as safely as possible administer the people’s money."
"There is no help from Sacramento any time in the future, we are on our own," added Daly. "Each and every one of these agencies is looking at increasing fares and decreasing service."
In the end, the commission voted to support Executive Director Steve Heminger’s proposal that the MTC wait until February 16th to see if the FTA would approve BART’s action plan. If BART fails to pass muster, the money will go to transit operators. MTC will hold a special meeting sometime shortly after the mid-February deadline to pick up the issue again.