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.”