BART Holds Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Oakland Airport Connector

Most of the elected officials in the East Bay (and San Francisco BART Board member James Fang) cast the ceremonial shovels of dirt for the Oakland Airport Connector. Photos: Matthew Roth
The officials who supported the Oakland Airport Connector, in some cases for decades. Photos: Matthew Roth

After decades of political wrangling, BART is on the verge of building the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC), a $484 million, 3.2 mile automated people mover that will connect the Coliseum BART Station with the Oakland international Airport. BART held a ceremonial groundbreaking yesterday with most of the significant East Bay political establishment, two weeks before the agency gives the Parsons/Flatiron/Doppelmayr team the order to proceed with design and construction.

“There’ve been many pitfalls throughout this process,” said U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, a champion of the OAC and part of the California delegation that helped get further assurances in the eleventh hour from Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff that the project was still going to get nearly $25 million in federal New Starts funding. “I just want you to know that countless Bay Area residents, all of you have come together to make sure this day happened.”

Lee led off a round of speeches that went for more than one hour, as each speaker thanked the others on the dais and congratulated everyone for their perseverance. A throng of workers representing the trade unions that hope to work on the project circled the large tent BART erected for the event, roaring with applause every time a speaker mentioned jobs and the project labor agreement with local hiring and zip-code priority guarantees.

The exact number of jobs the project will create has long been a controversy, one that project opponents highlighted to cast aspersions on BART. Even at the groundbreaking, the number was in flux, from several speakers that referenced the 2,500-5,000 direct and indirect jobs over the course of the four years of construction (numbers derived from state and federal jobs creation metrics), to the “several hundred direct jobs” referred to by Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums.

With the recession and unemployment weighing on everyone’s mind, Dellums argued the OAC was exactly the kind of project the public should be funding. “One can debate where and how one uses public money,” but one can’t debate that that public sector spending can have “an enormous impact on the economy,” he said.

A large crowd attended the ceremony, including many from the building trades hoping to build the project.
A large crowd attended the ceremony, including many from the building trades hoping to build the project.

Dellums had made several entreaties on behalf of BART to the FTA and the California delegation when it seemed the OAC might not get the funding to proceed. “This project today is a shining and magnificent example that the expenditure of public [money] can generate employment, can generate opportunity, can generate business and can strike a mighty blow at the greening of our cities and the greening of our region,” he said. “I’m very proud to have played one minor role in making sure that this moment came forward.”

The OAC has been one of the most contentious BART extensions in the transit agency’s history. Particularly in the past two years, advocates and community groups have used the OAC backdrop as they challenged its funding strategy and the overall civil rights policies of the agency, challenges that led the FTA to declare BART deficient in several areas. Those deficiencies have since been addressed to the FTA’s satisfaction, though the resolution of the federal investigation into the agency has not been formally closed.

At the groundbreaking, project proponents were notably relieved, and somewhat bombastic, given that the long debate over the connector appears to be over. BART Board President James Fang milled about before the event started, talking with politicians and reporters. At one point, he mused, “Where’s TransForm now?”

Fang was referring to the most visible opponent of the OAC, a transit non-profit that challenged BART’s decision to build the people mover and tried unsuccessfully to get the BART Board to consider a bus rapid transit option or other, cheaper alternative. Standing on a curb, Fang exclaimed, “Bring it on!”

Asked to elaborate on the boast, Fang said simply that he wished TransForm were present to “see how happy people are for this project.”

BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger expressed relief that the OAC was nearly underway and defended the project against its detractors. “This was a real partnership effort, a coming together of community, of leaders, and the result is a project that will be an investment for generations to come, that will improve the quality of life, improve mobility and help our region continue to grow,” she said.

Dugger said the only thing the delay in the project over civil rights and funding had accomplished was to increase construction costs. “I think one of the sad realities is that these kinds of major infrastructure projects take a long time to get to the starting block. It’s a truth that goes along with any large project: delay is generally not helpful. Delay only adds cost to the taxpayer.”

BART had two cakes baked in celebration.
BART had two cakes baked in celebration of the event.

Dugger was asked by the Contra Costa Times why the event was happening two weeks before the November elections, when the actual groundbreaking and construction of the project won’t begin until early next year. James Fang and Carole Ward Allen, the only two BART Board members present at the event, are both facing challengers in their re-election bids in November. “Typically we have a groundbreaking when we start a project and we are starting this project,” said Dugger, denying it was related to politics.

“I think this has been such a long process to get to go, such energy and involvement by so many people throughout the community that we didn’t want to delay a moment in celebrating the accomplishment,” added Dugger.

On November 1st, BART will give the Parsons/Flatiron/Doppelmayr team the notice to proceed, at which point they will have 30 days to deliver their plans for moving forward with construction, according to OAC project manager Tom Dunscombe. Utility relocation will begin shortly thereafter, with construction set to begin in early 2011.

Though BART has yet to secure the full funding for the project, it has enough cash on hand to proceed and Dugger expected to put together the remainder of the financing over the course of the next year or 18 months. BART has applied for a TIFIA loan in excess of $100 million, though it will proceed even if that loan is not awarded. Very few other loan funds have the rates TIFIA does, but Dugger said she was optimistic. She also indicated BART could look to apply for grants or loans from the proposed national infrastructure bank President Barack Obama discussed in a speech delivered over Labor Day.

“We’ll look for the most cost effective, most affordable, most flexible loan we can find,” she said.

Construction hard had with the names of elected officials were placed on the ceremonial shovels.
Construction hard hats with the names of elected officials were placed on the ceremonial shovels.
  • James Fang never fails to come across as a man child. Sure hope Bert Hill can knock him out this time around.

  • Always the ultimate defense for wasteful, inefficient transportation projects: they create jobs. Of course, that was also the major reason for building urban freeways in the 1950s.

  • JF

    I still can’t believe they are going through with it. And so fast.

  • Nelson

    I am pretty sure that I read in the Chronicle that the cost of a trip between the Coluseum and OAK will be $10 each way. Right now it’s $3. Even if you are adjusting for inflation between now and when this opens, it’s not much of a deal. Furthermore, are there going be more than 2 cars? Somehow, this sounds better on paper than it will be in real life. I don’t like those little busses either, but spending that much money on a tiny little connector seems like a waste.

  • When the fare to get to OAK is that high, sooner or later people actually price it into airport decisions. I’ll fly out of SFO for more $$$ because it will cost so much to get to OAK.

    Of course, since the BART to SFO fare has been raised so high, it might be cheaper for my family of three to take a cab. Brutal.

  • thielges

    Transit to SFO is no bargain and from the south quite a hassle since you have to take 2 different BaRT trains (for one stop each !). That sends a strong signal to avoid using transit. The last time I tried it (and it will be the last), it took nearly an hour from SFO to Millbrae Caltrain and then I nearly missed my train. So sad that dedicated transit riders are being discouraged.

    Bring back that putzy little shuttle bus. It would wait at Millbrae for the train and then go directly to SFO. For free.

    How was replacing this quick and cheap option with an expensive, cumbersome, and slow option a good idea ?

    Looks like OAK is making a similar decision. The money would be so much be better spent elsewhere.

  • Bart – for not much more than the BART fare you can take a cab from SFO to Millbrae Caltrain. If you have 2 people, it’s probably cheaper. The cabbie won’t be happy, but he can’t do anything but complain. And the only thing anyone could do about his complaints would be to reinstate direct Caltrain to SFO connections.

    That shuttle bus may have been putzy, but I’d take it over the VTA #10 anyday.

  • @Nelson,
    Current estimate from BART is $6 each way on OAC. They won’t know for sure until the build it, however.

  • doogiehowser

    Ugh. This balloon-and-cake-strewn fiasco is Bay Area political baloney at its best. Also, is it just me or does the picture of the thing look suspiciously like the monorail from the Simpsons?

  • thielges

    Thanks for the taxi tip John, it completely eliminates the BaRT latency component of the transit time. I’ve also heard (from you ?) that one can take the AirTrain to the rental car lot and walk to San Bruno CalTrain.

    The best option I’ve found only works when I’m traveling alone : Take a bike on CalTrain and cycle over to SFO. There’s a new bike parking rack in the central garage (which is a little hard to find, allow extra time on your first attempt) which is secure and free. It is another reason why bikes on CalTrain is such an awesome program.

  • political_incorrectness

    Need a project killed? Well this and BART to Warm Springs should be on the list.

  • Let’s start a jitney shuttle bus and undercut BART.

  • Dave

    James Fang doesn’t like transit riders.

    Bert for BART.

  • Dave

    I’m meeting a friend at SFO on Saturday night. I live a block from BART at 16th & Mission and my city carshare is also a block away.

    BART = $8.10 each way for me plus $8.10 for her = $24.30.
    City Carshare = ($5.50/hr x 1.25 hrs) + (.35/mi x 26 miles) = $16.

    I’m driving because it’s cheaper, for just me to meet ONE person. When I told this to Linton the BART spokesperson he says, “BART promotes multimodalism.”

    Really.

  • bubu

    Whats done is done…Let’s hope the best!I hope no one gets disenfranchised from this project!

  • East Lake Rider

    Transform knows better to picket the event. The media would jump all over it and show the opposition as cry babies. The folks at Transform must be working on their next move.

    My god, I live in Oakland and the OAC would be no use to me at all. For $2.25 I can take AC Transit with one transfer and be there in an hour.

    Robert Raburn for BART Board D4!

  • Al

    Dave: In your place, I would walk down to 24th, BART to SFO and meet your friend inside the gates, then head back to 16th. Total cost: ~$10 and a little abuse of the rules.

    I wonder if it could be reasonable to run a 2-car BART train back and forth from Millbrae to SFO? You have the tracks, why not use them?

    Oh, and on topic: what a POS this OAC is. Vote for Bert, and vote out James “the purpose of Bart is to funnel money to contractors” Fang.

  • Erik G.

    This is a Doppelmayr cable-drawn car, right? There’s some in Las Vegas. They aren’t very fast and, yup, only two trains are ever possible.

  • PRE

    Like so much (virtually everything) that BART does the result never lives up to the theory. In theory, the OAC would be a great idea, but unfortunately, BART’s idea is a cable car that as another said, can only ever have two cars. What would be wrong with expoliting the commonality of the Airtrain at SFO and build the same system?

    Want more examples?

    BART is building a $900 billion “extension” to Warm Springs with ONE station.

    BART is starting on a $500 billion “extension” to Antioch with ONE station (and the most convoluted transfer that you could possibly dream up.)

    Of course we all know about the MASSIVLY overbuilt SFO mess they can’t ever seem to make work witout leaving half of it idle. Has the center platform at SFO ever been in use? Is more than one track at Millbrae ever used? Just how many empty parking spots did we build and pay for at the garage-Mahal that will never be used at $50 grand a pop?

    How about an infill station in Dublin that’s a year behind schedule? And who in their right mind proposes a $3 Billion extension – not on Geary, not on Van Ness, but to Livermore? That would be BART. I’m so glad to have voted for Raeburn this time around.

  • @Dave, You can also just do an excursion fare. This is what I do when I pick folks up at SFO. This just means you cannot pass through the turnstyle at the airport–just wait for your friend on the platform or upstairs inside the gates. Then the fare is only like $4.50 or about that for your roundtrip. -J

  • @Justin – the excursion fare is $5.20.

    Alex Zapeda was looking at some data and found that on any given Saturday, more people enter at Daly City and leave from Daly City than enter at Daly City and leave at Orinda. Going from DC to say, Powell, and back, is $5.90, so you save 70 cents by doing an excursion fare. I suspect shenanigans.

  • @Al BART used to run a shuttle train between Millbrae and SFO, but the ridership was pathetic and more of a financial waste for BART. Also, they have to run a minimum three car train due to the infamous “Fremont Flyer” incident where a two car train ran off the end of the Fremont station tracks and landed in the parking lot.

    @Erik G. You are correct, it’s a cable drawn system they plan to run. From what I recall from their plans, they are going to run more than two trains by having a mid-stop station. This means having four trains on the system at once.

  • Mick

    I never understood why CalTrain wasn’t used as the major route to SFO given that it’s tracks run very close to there.

    But the reason people like these rail routes to the airport is moe about ease than price. As long as it is cheaper than a cab, people will use it, and a cab from downtown SF runs $40 to %50, one way.

    There used to be a dirt cheap SamTrans bus to SFO – don’t know if there still is.

    BTW, when London started it’s (admittedly high speed and sleek) train to Heathrow, they claimed it would cost 5 pounds. It actually launched at 10 pounds, quickly went to 12 pounds and I think it went up again but I haven’t been there for a while. So that’s 20 bucks and people pay it all the time.

  • maaaty

    @doogiehower,

    Yes, indeed — monorail, monorail, monorail.

    I have to say that what I will miss most about the buses is first-timers to Oakland being told by the driver to leave their bags in the middle area and then to find a seat. So you often get freaked-out people thinking their bags are going to be stolen, watching them like a hawk, while no one else gives a hoot.

  • “There used to be a dirt cheap SamTrans bus to SFO – don’t know if there still is”.

    Yes – the frequency was cut but it is still there. But you cannot take luggage on it.

  • KX, goes from downtown down the peninsula. No luggage, like John said. So if you fly with just the clothes on your back, it’s a nice option.

    And I looked at walking to SFO from San Bruno Caltrain, that looks like a hike on some crazy busy roads. Best of luck with that. I’m sure you’d get pulled over, only terrorists walk to the airport.

  • thielges

    Mick – Heathrow express is now 18 pounds in second class. Still a bargain compared to the OAC since the Heathrow express actually carries passengers an appreciable distance.

  • Alex

    Mick and thielges: Heathrow Express is 18 quid (16.50 if you buy it online) each way. Fine. Here’s the thing missing from the BART to the Airport equation: the tube runs to Heathrow as well at a fraction of the price.

  • Al

    Heathrow Express also has a local for 7 quid, and goes FOUR TIMES farther than this thing (though almost as fast!)

  • thielges

    The Heathrow Express also takes you directly into the center of the city as opposed to the OAC which requires a transfer to get to the city center. When the Heathrow Express first opened it seemed like a ripoff compared to the tube. But in comparison to the OAC it is a bargain.

    NYC also seems to be on the gouge-the-flyer plan. JFK’s Airtrain is also very expensive and if you take the train from Manhattan to Newark airport, you’re gouged with an extra high fare. Ride one station further and your fare drops.

  • Mick

    Al/Thiegles

    Most of the route from Heathrow to London’s Paddington station was already in place as part of the Great Western main line. The Heathrow connection only added a few miles to it, west of Hayes and Harlington.

    Paddington is also a little west of the city center. The new CrossRail project will genuinely link Heathrow to the central and eastern parts of downtown. We don’t know what the fare for that will be yet.

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