BART Moves Forward With Oakland Airport Connector

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 09:58:00 AM

With a heavy majority of the Bay Area Rapid Transit directors now on record in favor of moving forward with its $550 million Oakland Airport Connector (OAC), proponents of an alternative rapid bus route are shifting their fight to a critical funding source for the proposed project: the Port of Oakland. 

The Port of Oakland Board of Commissioners is tentatively scheduled to take up consideration of $44 million in funding for the OAC when the board meets in June. The Port of Oakland operates the Oakland Airport. 

BART is seeking to run an elevated railway the 3.2 miles between the system’s Coliseum Station and the Oakland Airport, hoping to increase the number of riders who use the transit system to get to the airport. The proposed OAC would not be an extension of the existing BART line, such as the connection of the Daly City line to the San Francisco Airport, but would involve driverless elevated rail cars that BART riders would board from a separate station immediately adjacent to the existing Coliseum Station. 

At the board’s May 14 meeting, BART directors voted 7-1 (Joel Keller, Bob Franklin, Carole Ward Allen, John McPartland, Thomas Blalock, Lynette Sweet, James Fang yes, Tom Radulovich no, Gail Murray absent) to approve moving forward with the final financial piece of the proposed project, an application for not more than $150 million in low-interest loans through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program. 

The BART TIFIA vote does not mean a final go-ahead for the airport connector project, which BART is hoping to put out for bid in June. Higher-than-expected contractor bids or other financial variables—including the failure of the Port of Oakland to approve its $44 million share of the cost—could make the project financially untenable for the transit district and could cause it to turn to a less costly alternative. 

District 4 BART Director Carole Ward Allen, who represents the Coliseum Station area on the board and has been the board’s chief supporter of the airport connector, told board members at last week’s meeting that the OAC has had “lots of controversy” and “no doubt it’s a project that people can find many things wrong with, if you want to go there.” But Ward Allen said that she had been working on aspects of the connector for 30 years, many of them as a Port of Oakland Commissioner, and that “this is the first time we’ve been able to line up the port, the city (of Oakland), and BART going down the same track on this particular project. The project will look at ‘Buy America,’ and it will give an opportunity for young people from Oakland to work. I think it’s a solid project. Are we taking a chance? Yes. But it does provide a stimulus package, and that’s what the stimulus money is for, to get people back to work. I’m for what President Obama is for. You’ve got to spend some money to make some money.” 

Ward Allen said the project would particularly help minority and women contractors. 

But Marcia Lovelace, a member of Genesis, the faith-based social justice organizing network that is part of the coalition opposing OAC, said that the project was an example of what she called “institutional racism” that favored public transit systems that have predominantly white suburban riders over systems that have predominantly minority riders. “When you are talking about taking away some of the first money we’ve had [in years] from buses for people who can’t get to school, can’t get to the doctor, can’t get to work, [just] to make it more convenient for someone to get to an airport, that’s racism.” 

Last month, the BART board approved the receipt of $70 million in federal recovery act money for the airport connector project through the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), and another $50 million from MTC reassigned from BART’s Transbay Tube Seismic Retrofit Project. MTC had earlier approved assigning the recovery act money to BART over objections by some transit advocates that the money go instead to the ailing AC Transit and other local bus agencies. 

OAC would replace the AirBART vans that currently run between the Coliseum Station and the Oakland Airport along Hegenberger Avenue. Instead of the overhead rail OAC, a coalition of Bay Area transit advocates want BART to create a dedicated rapid bus shuttle running along the same route as AirBART, but using traffic signal coordination technologies and line-jumping that would allow the rapid bus to run considerably faster than AirBART. 

The transit advocates, who have been joined by unions representing BART workers, say that their rapid bus shuttle proposal would run almost as fast as reliably as the proposed airport connector rail line, at a fraction of the cost. 

The dual proposals have split the Bay Area labor committee down the middle, with members of the building trades unions supporting the airport construction and the jobs it would bring to construction workers and members of the transit unions and the Service Employees International Union in opposition.