Critics Charge BART Airport Connector Took AC Transit Funds

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday March 04, 2009 - 07:07:00 PM

Despite a crowd of public transit advocates packing last week’s meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, many of them seeking more money for the embattled AC Transit bus agency, MTC Commissioners opted to give the largest single allocation of new federal money to a project to provide BART service between the Coliseum BART Station and the Oakland Airport. 

AC Transit Board President Chris Peeples said that he was “a little frustrated” by the MTC action.  

“There’s continual disrespect [at MTC] for bus service for our passengers,” Peeples said by telephone this week. He blamed that “disrespect” in part on AC Transit itself, saying that “we have to do a better job in communicating our positions and our needs at both the commission and staff level at MTC.” 

MTC is both the planning and fund-funneling agency for the transportation in the nine-county Bay Area region. 

BART’s Oakland Airport Connector will get $70 million of a total $490 million allocated for distribution by MTC out of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act recently signed into law by President Barack Obama. 

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who represents East Bay cities on the 19-commissioner member MTC, was the only commissioner to oppose the Oakland Airport Connector. 

But commissioners delayed action on a second big ticket item included in its proposed federal recovery act budget, $70 million for the construction of a “train box” in connection with the proposed new San Francisco Transbay Terminal. Requests for terminal funding are being moved into a separate part of the recovery act set aside for high-speed rail projects. 

AC Transit will get money out of the recovery act, $25.7 million out of a $270 million pot MTC has set aside for seven transit agencies, somewhat less than the $40.1 million the agency had expected when the recovery act was passed by the House of Representatives.  

Peeples said that had the agency received the full $40.1 million, “we would probably have raised fares a little bit but probably not had any service cuts.” AC Transit is considering both fare raises and service cuts to keep its budget balanced. 

The only other transit agency operating in the East Bay, BART, received $65.3 million from the recovery act funds directed towards transit agencies. San Francisco’s Muni will get $67.2 million and Santa Clara Valley’s Valley Transit Authority will get $47.2 million. 

At last week’s MTC meeting, MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger said that it was incorrect to say that MTC was “diverting” recovery act money from AC Transit, as some public transit advocates had charged. 

“A lot of comments you’ve heard is that somehow this proposal will divert funds from some other purpose or that some agency is going to lose money if another agency gets something,” Heminger told commissioners. “But there really can’t be any diversion of these funds because they didn’t exist until last week [when the recovery act was signed by President Obama]. These funds aren’t governed by any existing adopted policy of this commission.” 

Heminger said that “every agency, every transit operator, every city, every county will walk out of this room with more money than they walked in with. No one’s going to lose.” 

But many of the crowd attending the MTC meeting who came to support more money for AC Transit felt that they were losing. 

“I encourage you to use these funds for operating costs to provide better service for AC Transit,” Berkeley/East Bay Gray Panthers convener Margo Smith told commissioners. “I heard the director of AC Transit get up at a meeting and say that he was proud of the fact that there was an AC Transit bus stop within a quarter of a mile of every home in Berkeley. What he didn’t say was that there wasn’t any service provided on some of those stops. If you want to get up to many places after 7 in the evening, AC Transit doesn’t work.” 

Smith said that “more operating funds should go to AC Transit so that service can be improved, and so that AC Transit doesn’t raise fares in these hard times, but instead can lower fares so they can get more riders.” 

In his telephone interview, Peeples said that he was happy to see that the transbay terminal project got referred to high-speed rail money in the recovery act. AC Transit is scheduled to be one of the transit agencies connecting to the terminal when it is eventually built.  

“It’s a worthy project,” Peeples said, “but they were trying to take it out of the wrong source of money.” 

As for BART’s Airport Connector, Peeples said that one of the sources of recovery act money that was included in the $70 million MTC allocation was money that was supposed to go for bus service.  

“Whatever the merits of the project, it was the wrong pot of money,” he said.  

Countering the argument that construction of the connector would create jobs that are needed in the current flat area and national economy, Peeples called those construction jobs “temporary,” and said that “preserving existing transportation jobs would have been more beneficial.”  

Peeples said that without the extra recovery act money, AC Transit may have to lay off workers.