California Reps Urge FTA to Show Support for OAC Ahead Of Board Vote
On the eve of another significant vote to proceed with the contract to build the controversial Oakland Airport Connector, BART and project supporters received a positive indication from Federal Transit Administration (FTA) head Peter Rogoff of his agency’s commitment to give BART $25 million in New Starts funds for the project, a necessary step to close the funding gap resulting from the loss of $70 million in stimulus funds earlier this year.
BART staff had been scrambling to replace the $70 million denied to the agency for failure to adequately analyze the federal Title VI civil rights impacts of the OAC. Without the $25 million, BART would have had to proceed by borrowing more and increasing its already significant debt load on the airport connector.
In the letter [pdf], Rogoff reaffirmed to BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger that the FTA had set aside $24.9 million and would “process a grant after determining that BART has adequately addressed all of the Title VI deficiencies for the OAC Project. The grant will include conditions that allow BART to draw down the funds upon BART’s demonstration of completion of the Title VI Corrective Action Plan that was approved by the FTA on April 16, 2010.”
BART called a special meeting of its Board of Directors for today to address the looming contractual deadline with the Parsons/Flatiron team, who won’t delay the bid beyond September 21st, two days before the next regularly scheduled board meeting.
Board action is required before proceeding because Vice President Bob Franklin in July added conditions to a motion to proceed that required any change in funding to come back before the board of directors. Specifically, Franklin was concerned about the $25 million in New Starts money, $39 million from an airport passenger surcharge to be levied by the Port of Oakland, which runs the Oakland International Airport, and a $20 million state funding swap still to be authorized by the California Transportation Commission. The CTC has agendized the swap and plans to vote on the matter at its September 22nd meeting, the day after the Parsons/Flatiron deadline.
Franklin told Streetsblog, given the lopsided votes in favor of the project in the past, he believed the directors would vote to move forward with the project despite the funding gaps today. He said he would act to put in as many safeguards as possible and noted that if directors voted to proceed and the contractors started hiring, it will be that much more expensive to terminate the contract in the future should BART not secure federal loans or should the Port money not come through.
“I will see what I can do. I obviously don’t want to put the public money at risk. I will see if we can somehow add more protections,” he said.
Rumors had been circulating late Wednesday among project supporters and opponents that members of California’s congressional delegation, notably Senator Dianne Feinstein, had urged US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood to encourage the FTA to show support for the project to keep it moving forward along the established timeline.
BART spokesperson Linton Johnson responded to the rumors by saying, “the highest levels of government have been involved making sure there are jobs being created for the high unemployment rate in Oakland. That’s one of the certain initial benefits of the project.”
When asked whether Senator Feinstein had pressured LaHood, Johnson only acknowledged that both senators and representatives had been in contact with the US DOT expressing their support for the project.
At the meeting today, directors will be asked to support a motion [pdf] granting Dugger the authority to move forward “immediately in anticipation of pending commitment of $25 million in Federal New Starts funds by the Federal Transit Administration and favorable action by the California Transportation Commission for $20 million in State Funding.”
Project opponents argued the action to proceed with the OAC contradicted the spirit of President Barak Obama’s pledge on Labor Day to reform “the haphazard and patchwork way we fund and maintain our infrastructure to focus less on wasteful earmarks and outdated formulas, and more on competition and innovation that gives us the best bang for the buck.”
“This project is just an absolute dog,” said John Knox White of the transit advocacy non-profit TransForm, an opponent of the OAC. “Here we are a week and a half out [from Obama’s speech] with a wasteful earmark on one of the least smart projects probably in the nation.”
TransForm and other OAC opponents have advocated for a more affordable bus rapid transit project to connect the airport with BART. Knox White argued that BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s transportation planning body, were doing everything they could to move a long-standing project off a to-do list despite the increased cost and reduced ridership projections versus the OAC project approved by voters nearly a decade ago.
“I really just don’t understand how that is responsible regional transportation planning,” he said.