Port Agrees to Seek Airport Connector Money

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:39:00 PM

Members of the Port of Oakland’s Board of Commissioners put off the toughest decision on the controversial BART Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) project for another day, agreeing on Tuesday, June 16, to apply for federal funds for the project but adding a provision to study a rapid bus alternative. 

BART is proposing a long-planned, 3.5-mile, $529 million rail line connecting the Coliseum BART station with the Oakland Airport and is requesting that the Port of Oakland, which runs the airport, contribute some $44 million to complete the funding package for the project. Interest on the port portion of the funding will run the total port cost to a little over $70 million. 

The port’s contribution to the OAC is the last piece of the project’s funding. Because a key portion of the funding for the OAC is coming from federal stimulus funds, BART is under strict time constraints to have the funding package completed next month and a construction contract signed by December. 

At Tuesday evening’s regular Port Commission meeting, commissioners voted 5–1 (Victor Uno, Margaret Gordon, Anthony Batarse Jr., Pamela Calloway, James Head yes, Kenneth Katzoff no) to approve a staff recommendation to apply for Federal Passenger Facility Charge Program funds for the airport connector. The staff recommendation included a provision to study a significantly cheaper rapid bus alternative to OAC along Hegenberger Road, as well as a direction for port staff to “work with BART on the use of a Project Labor Agreement” for the OAC construction similar to the labor agreement currently in use by the port. 

Following the meeting, BART Board of Directors member Carole Ward Allen—one of the major airport connector supporters—said that she was “very pleased” by the Port Commission’s decision. 

Several organizations supporting the rapid bus alternative had requested that port commissioners include a study of rapid bus in their approval of the loan application. No details were given at Tuesday’s meeting about when or how such a rapid bus study would take place, but presumably it will happen if the application for the federal funds is approved by the federal government, and port commissioners come back to give the final go-ahead for the project. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, port commissioners were less interested in the bus alternative or the projected cost of the port’s portion of the airport connector project than they were with making sure that BART agreed to a labor agreement for the connector construction project that included provisions for using local and disadvantaged businesses, hiring locally, and paying living and prevailing wages. Representatives of BART and construction trades leaders said they were in the process of negotiating such an agreement. 

Meanwhile, Oakland mayoral politics have begun to enter into the airport connector issue. Last week, former state Sen. Don Perata—an announced candidate in next year’s Oakland mayoral race—released a letter to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) opposing the airport connector, calling it “too much money for too little transit and economic value.” MTC has already given approval for BART to receive federal stimulus money for the connector. But writing that OAC project costs have increased by over $300 million since the project was proposed in 2003, while ridership projections have fallen from a predicted 13,450 to 4,500, Perata said that it “seems prudent … to discontinue further action on the connector.” Perata said that construction of the connector is “unwarranted at all in today’s market.” The former state senate president added that “express buses through synchronized traffic lights, BART around the bay and (my personal favorite) all-bay commuter ferry service are superior uses of limited capital transit funds.” 

BART representatives have listed current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums as a supporter of the project, and BART Director Carole Ward Allen did so again at Tuesday’s meeting, but a Dellums spokesperson said earlier this month that Dellums has not taken a position on the airport connector and wanted to meet with both connector and bus alternative supporters to see if a compromise could be reached. Dellums has not yet announced if he will run for re-election.