The Oakland Airport Connector: BART’s Little Engine that Could?

Image: Parsons/Flatiron
Image: Parsons/Flatiron

The fatigue is palpable, but the battle over BART”s Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) is nowhere near its conclusion. That’s the message coming out of yet another marathon hearing today at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the region’s transportation planning body, over the merits of the airport connector, which I would argue has now become the second most controversial regional transit proposal behind the California High Speed Rail Peninsula alignment.

Despite a long history of protests by a coalition of transit advocates, the MTC’s Programs and Allocations Committee voted to endorse a $20 million swap of money from two freeway projects to the airport connector, a shifting of highway money to transit those same advocates would probably support if it were being geared toward other projects, instead of a $500 million, elevated tramway.

In a scene that has repeated itself many times, scores of people testified for more than an hour at the MTC hearing, offering nearly verbatim testimony to what has been said over the past year at numerous BART, MTC, Oakland City Council and Alameda County Congestion Management Agency hearings. On one side were the construction and trade unions desirous of jobs BART has promised will be created by the OAC, on the other transit advocates who think the $500 million for the OAC could be used on a more economical bus rapid transit option and for core capacity investments at BART and AC Transit.

BART likens the struggle over the OAC to other cornerstone transportation projects like the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, or even the creation of BART itself.

“This is the same argument of the opponents of BART in the 1960s who didn’t want BART being built at all,” said BART spokesperson Linton Johnson. “It’s really difficult for us and frustrating for us, trying to do what you know is right, building for the future, but ten years from now we’re going to be vindicated, twenty years from now we’re going to be vindicated. We’ve got to think generations ahead.”

“The people of yesteryear had to fight like hell to get BART and today we have something that is priceless,” he added.

According to the project opponents, spending that kind of money should leave a legacy project the region can be proud of, not a glorified chair lift (one of the contractors on the OAC, Doppelmayr, also makes lifts for ski areas).

“There’s a difference between building expensive important projects and building expensive, really terrible projects,” said TransForm’s Executive Director Stuart Cohen. “This one fails the laugh test. It’s a skeleton of what was once promised to us.”

At the MTC meeting, Cohen and other advocates argued that a full BRT proposal like theirs for the Hegenberger corridor could deliver the same results as the elevated tram at a fraction of the cost and pointed to a new study by Kittelson & Associates to back their claim. TransForm argued their study filled the gap in analyzing BRT that they said BART failed to do during full environmental review.

MTC’s Executive Director Steve Heminger said the TranForm study was merely conceptual and didn’t adequately stack up against the data and detail that has been put into analyzing the tram. “It’s a difficult thing to try to compare what is essentially a concept, the notion of some kind of bus rapid transit system on the corridor, against a project that has received a construction bid. They are vastly different in their stage of development,” he said.

“It’s entirely plausible to me that if you were to try to build a BRT project in the corridor, it could cost less than the Oakland Airport Connector, but that’s really not the question,” added Heminger. “The Oakland Airport Connector was designed with a very special class of transit rider in mind, which is air passengers. Air passengers pride reliability. You pay a premium to get that reliability.”

Betting on the Feds

In the end, figuring out how to pay that premium will be the rub. BART is cobbling together the funds to pay for the contract and the advocates have vowed to fight to the end.

Here’s the scenario BART hopes to see materialize: now that the MTC has signaled its consent for the $20 million swap, the California Transportation Commission will take up that issue at its September 22nd meeting and will presumably give it the okay (Public Advocates has shared numerous emails with the press obtained through Public Records Act requests detailing the discussion among BART, MTC, and CTC staff where all three are endeavoring to make the swap happen). Theoretically at some point soon, the FTA will release the $25 million in New Starts money it has withheld from BART while the agency has undergone its civil rights compliance review. The US DOT still has to approve the $105 million Transportation Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan BART has requested for the project, a loan with relatively low interest rates. And the Federal Administration Aviation Administration must approve the passenger fee increase requested by the Port of Oakland (with runs Oakland International Airport) so the Port can give BART the $30 million it has pledged.

That’s the $39 million wager (or the amount BART has already spent acquiring rights of way, moving utilities, paying consultants, etc.).

Now here’s how the advocates are going to fight it: In its letter to BART, MTC and CTC, Public Advocates argued the CTC cannot amend the state transportation improvement fund (STIP) to authorize the $20 million swap until next fiscal year, which starts July 1st, 2011 [pdf]. If the advocates are correct and can stall the state money on procedural grounds, the project could still move forward, but the whole thing will have to go back to BART’s board for further approval (in July, BART’s board, led by Vice President Bob Franklin, added a condition to the contract that any change in funding required further action by the directors).

The Parsons/Flatiron team isn’t going to wait around forever and the bid will have to be renewed at a rate no one believes will be as low as it is currently, possibly jeopardizing the whole project.

At the same time, the advocates argue the $140 million in federal grants and loans are anything but a sure thing. Although BART has taken action to correct the complaints about its civil rights analysis on the OAC, the agency still hasn’t heard anything about when the $25 million New Starts grant will be released. BART’s Johnson said he is confident the money will come through eventually. Withholding it, he said, would contradict FTA’s own policies.

“They really can’t not give it to us,” he said. “If we voluntarily cure that deficiency, then they have to move forward with the commitments they’ve made.”

Of course, the advocates say, BART was equally confident it had completed the necessary equity analysis on the OAC to get the $70 million in stimulus funds it lost. Cohen said BART is one of 39 applicants for TIFIA money, and only one loan was given out last year.

If the TIFIA loan doesn’t come through, BART’s only option to proceed would be Build America Bonds, which have a much worse interest rate and no deferred payments like TIFIA. According to Cohen, TransForm sent its report to the FTA and hoped further action by the agency would compel the region to reconsider the OAC tram.

Referring to a controversial speech FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff gave in May, Cohen said, “We’ve seen some pretty strong language from [Rogoff] about speaking truth to power and not investing money where it doesn’t make sense, especially in rail projects where there’s a BRT alternative.”

  • Winston

    Can we PLEASE just hand the CA HSR project over to BART? If they show half the tenacity they’ve shown fighting to get this thing built, trains will be running between LA and SF in no time. In all seriousness, insane projects like this one are why people think that transit is a waste of money. It really needs to be stopped. Heck, the BART to San Jose project is actually more cost-effective than the OAC.

  • tNOB

    I am personally glad that they are moving forward with the project. Although never looking into it too deeply, I never understood the equity debate. Both AirBART and the OAC (will) provide Point A to B service from the BART station to the Airport. One provides unencumbered service, while the other is subject to local traffic.

    I look at it this way, I have paid a couple hundred dollars for a plane ticket, yet risk long lines and potential traffic with the AirBART, or spend an extra $3 for a direct connection to the airport. That is from one traveler’s personal perspective (make that two, my wife is in agreement). I almost exclusively fly out of SFO for that reason.

    From an area-wide view of our transit system, this helps give Oakland an edge for attracting airlines to its airport, bringing more business travelers and tourists, and even more people onto BART. The OAK Master Plan projected 18 million people by 2010, and 30 by 2025. That is BART’s grab for those passengers.

    Ultimately, do it now or likely never.

  • What a joke: over $100/passenger trip anticipated amortized cost, higher fares, and it’s slower than the present shuttle bus at getting folks to their terminal.

    This is double the boondoggle of BART to SFO, and that was a boondoggle of extraordinary proportions, one whose costs have been crippling in particular to Caltrain, since San Mateo County is spending so much on that BART project. And there, as well, a shuttle to/from Millbrae would be faster to deliver customers to domestic terminals.

    Projects like these are prime recruiting material for the “all government is bad, unless it involves killing people” wackos who help the Tea Party thrive. We need some sanity in our infrastructure investments, not simply justify ridiculous spending on the basis it “creates jobs”.

    This one needs to go down.

  • Sven Bravo

    Build it already! If Transform and other project opponents had their way, we would still be putting our cars on a ferry for travel between the east bay and SF.

    Who funds these guys, anyway? Must be bus unions based on their unabashed support of bus operations by unions that are unwilling to make an concessions!

  • Jym

    =v= Dear Anonymous Person: I am not a fun of buses. All things being equal, you can rely on me to support a rail project, for its environmental and other long-term advantages. I would bring back the Key System if I had the power.

    Even so, I find it pretty obvious that the OAC project is a colossal waste of money and a clear violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The money wasted on this project could go to so many other uses that aid so many other people.

  • tNOB

    Jym, can you please open my eyes to how this clearly violates Title VI?

  • Sven Bravo

    Yes, Jym, please explain.

    While you are at it, also please include an explanation of why the NAACP, Hispanic Chamber, and Asian Chambers are among the OAC’s strong supporters?

  • I really don’t understand the “just build it” argument. If both ran, at the same fare, I’d still take the shuttle since it gets you right to your terminal. Since the BART checks in at over $100 per ride and the bus is no more than 5% that total cost (subsidized + fare), I hardly see how this is even being considered except for the pork factor.

  • Sven – various agencies are supporting it because it is “Jobs in the pocket” that will in many cases go to minorities, the Unions will give those agencies their perspective.

    Regardless of the specifics of the lawsuit – the equity crime for this project is that this project only services people who are about to get onto an airplane e.g. affluent people. The cost of the project means that a disproportionate amount of precious transit dollars are going to a population that are not transit dependent. You can push back with anecdotes but face it, the more money you have, the more likely you are to take a plane.

    Additionally, if I understand it, this will impact AC Transit service to the airport, much like BART to SFO impacted SamTrans service to SFO. Passengers – more affluent – aren’t too concerned with paying an extra couple of bucks to get to the airport especially when BART is “cheap” compared to alternatives (at $8.50 per now, from Noe Valley a cab for 3 is starting to get competitive), but employees of the airport – less affluent and required to take that transit daily, it’s a punch in the gut.

    There are plenty of really useful projects that could be made shovel ready real quick and provide those jobs AND provide much more useful service. Of course, in many cases I would just say “fund better operations” – it turns out a bus driving job is a job just like a nail pounding job. Except of course when it isn’t – transit unions are generally seen as evil and construction unions not so much, because transit unions are directly on the government teat and construction unions go through a middleman.

  • “I look at it this way, I have paid a couple hundred dollars for a plane ticket, yet risk long lines and potential traffic with the AirBART, or spend an extra $3 for a direct connection to the airport. That is from one traveler’s personal perspective (make that two, my wife is in agreement). I almost exclusively fly out of SFO for that reason.”

    The problem is you are asking everyone else to pay an extra $97 for you to have that privilege…

  • tNOB

    John,

    I am afraid that logic can be applied to any project proposed looking for federal money. The scale of the expenditure should not be the issue. I am in the construction industry and don’t see the cost being all that high for what it is due to the complexity. It may be that the money could be better spent elsewhere, but that is subjective, and the decision of the BART board that controls that agency. If there was enough local pressure for another alternative, then AC Transit could maintain a bus route for the regular bus fare for those who don’t want to spend $6. BART is regional system and trying to provide a better connection to a interstate/international system, AC Transit is local. They have different goals and constituency.

    I am looking for a solid argument as to how this actually discriminates against someone specifically. I fear a starting a precedent that prohibits future growth in infrastructure projects. Is spending federal dollars on bicycle lanes discriminatory against a wheelchair-bound tax-paying citizen?

  • tNOB

    And? The Title VI Compliance plan (which I have reviewed previously) simply states more homework that BART needs to do to get the money. Typical for the process. It does not mean that the current design does not comply.

  • Joe

    Face it, folks, most air travelers don’t really want to take a bus through some of the roughest parts of Oakland that are frequently congested with traffic just to get to the airport. The safety issue is exacerbated at night, when there are fewer people around and trains come less frequently. As anecdote, most people I know would happily take BART to get to OAK during the day but hesitate to take it at night (I disagree: I frequently use AirBART at night, but a lot of people won’t risk it). A platform-to-platform connection removes the necessity of leaving the paid area of one of the more dangerous stations in the system and dealing with the not-so-friendly conditions around Coliseum BART.

    There is a reason business travelers (a large share of OAK passengers) use air to get where they’re going: convenience and comfort. The fact remains that even AirBART stops three “islands” away from the terminal. A fourth island is about 20-30 feet. The connector station is far closer to the security lines than BART at SFO, i.e., a one-two minute walk. Transform and others ought to stop skewing the numbers disingenuously just to make their points. And no one said anything about AC Transit 73 going away: this line is a replacement of AirBART, not the AC line, which is cheaper than AirBART anyway. One could make the same argument about any rail rapid transit that’s not in an exclusively dense area: “it’s for the poor, so why build rails anyway? Just run a lot of buses.” But that ignores the huge QoS, speed, and convenience that BART and similar systems offer to hundreds of thousands of commuters every day.

    As the economy recovers (which anyone who thinks America’s best days are ahead of her instead of being mired in pessimism and the past knows will come eventually), Oakland will continue to grow and attract more and more passengers, as it is already a far more convenient airport than SFO in terms of delays and efficiency. It will need a reliable, high capacity link to get both business travelers and residents both near and far to and from the airport. BRT has a high operational cost and is fundamentally capacity-constrained and still must drive ON THE ROADS. Until our society dramatically redesigns how we use public roads, BRT will never be the most reliable, comfortable or fastest option out there.

  • “The connector station is far closer to the security lines than BART at SFO, i.e., a one-two minute walk.”

    Um, you are flat out wrong. I’ll even go with you to both places and count steps and use a stop watch. We’ll go to SFO first so we don’t have to waste much time at OAK.

    And who is going to pay for the OAC? AC Transit will have to put some of their funds towards the huge loans being taken out by BART (see SamTrans and BART to SFO). Yes, people will still have an AC Transit option, but for how long? It will be seen as duplicate service and dropped in the first round of cuts after BART siphons off more money.

  • Alex

    @tNOB: That’s kinda the point. BART could simply push for signal priority and cut stuck in traffic times for AirBART dramatically. They could also restripe San Leandro and whatnot to create a dedicated transit lane. Hell, with the current budget, they could build an infill station at 98th and San Leandro… and have enough money left over to build the shorter connector system to OAK.

    The only reason the construction unions are supporting this boondoggle is because it’s ready… not because it’s cost effective or otherwise a good idea. A proper 98th St station would serve a predominantly low-income neighborhood… the OAC (especially after you’ve gutted the local stops to save money while propping up fake ridership numbers) will not.

  • Alex

    Joe: So build a proper transit-only lane for a fraction of the cost of the OAC and blammo, no more stuck in traffic.

  • tNOB

    @Alex: Are we debating the financial feasability vs. alternate options OR the issue of equity. AirBART does not currently stop between the station and the airport, and one could argue the one stop suggested in the OAC project improves the existing service.

    The argument for Title VI violations should not be about how to better spend federal tax dollars, but the merits or lack thereof, for the project as proposed.

  • Alex

    I’m not talking about equality, I’m talking about fiscal responsibility. There were two proposed local stops. The additional ridership those two stops would acquire is being used to calculate the expected ridership… despite the elimination of those stops. So, yeah, extra local stops would benefit the community. Too bad they’re not part of the $500,000,000.00 project.

  • Joe – at $100 a pop we could hire a fleet of Cab Drivers to pick people up curbside at OAK and deliver them to the terminal of their choice…

  • Interurbans

    The idea is good, but the implication does not seem so good. A slow amusement park, cable car people mover at such a high cost appears to be about the worst choice possible. Isn’t there a better and less expensive way to build an above grade line between the Oakland Airport and the BART station? Maybe an elevated single track line with passing a passing track in the center could work. This would allow for a 10 minute ride and 10 minutes between trains that could seat 100 people. A fancy bus is still a bus no matter what you call it with its poor quality ride and it still has to deal with traffic is not the answer. It’s time to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to build a less expensive elevated line to provide this needed service.

  • Question: Caltrain is threatening to cut 8 trains a day from their weekday schedule and says they may have to bring elimination of weekend service and Gilroy service onto the table next year, and they have raised fares.

    Is that service more or less needed than OAC? The budget gap Caltrain is trying to close this year could probably be closed with the funds used by BART to fight the Title VI defense of OAC.

  • Daniel Krause

    If the technology and operational speeds of the project were drastically changed at the last minute, why hasn’t the EIR been challenged?

  • patrick

    interurbans is right, the idea of providing better connectivity from BART to the Oakland Airport is a good idea. The OAC was a good idea when first proposed: it was supposed to cost around $150 million, connect directly to the terminal, speed the trip, and half an additional station that would serve the neighborhood. Now it’s about $500 million, doesn’t connect to the terminal, isn’t any faster, and lost the intermediate stop.

    What was once a good project, has morphed into a terrible one. I supported it when it was good, I oppose it now that it’s bad.

  • patrick

    @Daniel, I’ve been wondering the same thing. I suspect it’s because for the time being it’s more effective to go after the funding sources. If they contest the EIR, all BART needs to do is redo the EIR, it can’t actually stop the project, but if you can block the funding, you can’t build the project. That’s juts my theory though.

  • Ryan

    Caltrain is in it’s situation because it has no dedicated funding. It’s a totally diff situation from the connector (which is capital, not operating).

    As for the convenience debate: Travellers around the world have been impressed by the rail link to SFO and it’s increasingly popular. I think if they removed the ridiculous airport surcharge it would be more competitive.

    Taking the bus from colliseum to oak at night was one of the more unnerving transit trips I’ve taken, it just doesn’t feel safe. Plus, nobody likes taking the bus.

  • Ryan, Caltrain is in the situation because SamTrans is cutting its funding (which is leading VTA and MTA to do the same). The reason SamTrans is in financial straights is because of the burden placed on it by BART via the BART extension to SFO.

  • Joe

    mikesonn, you must walk pretty slowly… In all seriousness, Even if you were in the first car of BART walking to the international security checkpoint, you would have a longer walk than the 100-200 feet or so from the proposed OAC station.

    The key QoS and security factors of OAC far outstrip any bus-based option. No one going to/from the airport wants some stop “serving a low-income spot”. That defeats the purpose of having a fast, secure BART platform-to-airport curbside link. QoS, convenience, and security are why people don’t use the bus now! Painting some pretty stripes on the street and buying some new buses ain’t going to change that.

  • Joe

    Regarding Caltrain, it’s the problem of San Mateo/Santa Clara residents not stepping up for the train service and providing a dedicated funding base. Has nothing to do with OAC. If they wanted to vote and approve a tax/other funding source, they could do it, but the will isn’t there. Don’t use red herrings.

  • Joe

    The SFO surcharge makes sense: BART is still by far the cheapest option for getting to the airport from almost any point in the Bay Area.

  • @Joe

    “There is a reason business travelers (a large share of OAK passengers) use air to get where they’re going: convenience and comfort.”

    I would suggest that these passengers in a real sense do not matter, and even if you think they ‘matter’ in the world, we should not be worried about their comfort and convenience. Oakland does not need them. Projections of more and more air travel into OAK are overblown and do not take into account the rising costs and inconveniences of flying vs. train travel in this country. We need a climate change tax on flights so that still-incredibly underpriced flights are brought up to the correct level to account for their externalities.

    If you even think about all of these issues for a second, the perception of safety for would-be suburbanite travelers to OAK via rapid bart bus passengers means nothing. Who cares? Let’s expand high speed rail (and the platform for passengers at Emeryville boarding the California Zephyr).

    Rail, not air, is the future.

    Justin

  • Joe, which OAC project are you looking at? Not the same one that is currently being proposed. And to say that the first car of BART is far from the international terminal is a joke that shouldn’t even merit a response. The only way you could get closer is if BART stopped at the ticket counter, my goodness.

    Also, do a little research about JPB (Joint Powers Board) which runs Caltrain. They do not have the authority to raise and collect revenue. Funding for JPB comes from MTA, VTA, and Samtrans. Red herrings? Facts!

    BART is getting pretty pricey with the surcharge. As Murph said earlier, a family of 3 on BART to SFO is getting close to the cost of a taxi from Noe Valley (and North Beach where I live). And if you have a family of 4 or more, you might as well drive or taxi since bay area transit still hasn’t figured out a family pack of some sorts to discount use for a group like to do all over Europe.

  • Travellers around the world have been impressed by the rail link to SFO

    They are used to DeGaulle. 40 minutes to downtown from SFO is pretty bad, given Millbrae to 4th on Caltrain is 17 minutes.

  • political_incorrectness

    I thought writing Patty Murray would actually kill this project. Opponents of HSR say it is a boondoggle. I keep saying, look at BART and what they waste money on. You would be better off spending money on an in-fill station or two and then selling development rights around the stations. That would promote TOD such as in Fruitvale. It would help ridership increase quite a bit.

  • tNOB

    @Justin

    I would have to completely disagree with your assessment that these airline passengers don’t matter. That is the single purpose of this OAC! It is about connecting a regional rail transport system to the national/international flight network. It is NOT about adding a stop in a lower income neighborhood who wouldn’t ride it anyway. If people begin trying to mold it into something it is not intended to do, it will become a boondoogle (or more so).

    I will agree with you on the rail aspect. After having lived in Europe, it was a huge disappointment to come back to the US, although it was to Boston, which has a decent regional system.

  • patrick

    @tNOB

    you don’t get to justify the OAC on the passengers, and then justify the passengers by the OAC.

    Oh, by the way, the OAC always intended to have an intermediary stop, until they ran into the massive budget issues (it was originally supposed to be around $150 million, and be better, as I mentioned earlier)

  • Sven

    I am all for the intermediate stop. Can it be at the Harley dealership?

  • Nathanael

    If the purpose of this is to take people to the airport, *why isn’t it being funded by the airport authority*? That’s how the Newark and JFK AirTrains were funded in NYC.

  • Jym

    =v= The “security” concerns about the BART station’s ground level are exaggerated and largely (face it) racist. However, an dedicated airport connection that meets BART at the platform level makes sense for logistical reasons. Passengers struggling with baggage shouldn’t be impeded from their connection by out-of-service elevators and escalators, and ideally they could avoid running into large influxes of people who attend events at the Coliseum.

    There is no valid reason for the service to be elevated the entire distance from BART to the airport, though. The length of a ramp down to ground level would be sufficient, and much, much less expensive.

  • www.skycabs.com

    There are other opportunities with new modes of transport, that are accepted in funding procedures in the UK and would likely attract up to 60% funding from the FTA New Start funding.   One which has the potential to do the Oakland Airport to Bart line well is the SkyCabs two way monobeam.  Its cost for the line would probably be under US$150 million, it would do the trip in around 5-6 minutes in 8 seater cabs with plenty of room for luggage and would be ‘on-demand’.  Stations in between are not a problem as they are all off line, and airport destination trips could be separated from intermediate station to station trips if desired.  And the cost per trip would be reduced because of the low capital cost, the potential for a 60% New Start funding grant and the automated operating system
    These transport projects with high service level requirements with short trip and preferred low cost fares can only be provided from low capital cost service providers.   SkyCabs operation is just like a modern lift, available and a service between destinations.  With a  capacity of 4800 per hour in each direction seated or 9000/direction/hr with standees there is no argument against on capacity grounds.
    The procedure for entering the original selection restricted SkyCabs potential to be involved.  An alternative procedure is to ask for proposals then analyse for the best solution.

    Hugh Chapman
    CEO
    SkyCabs International Ltd

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