UPDATE (22 July 2009): MTC voted to allocate the $140 million to the Oakland Airport Connector.
This Wednesday (tomorrow), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will consider the formal allocation of $140 million to the long-flailing Oakland Airport Connector (OAC). The allocation includes $70 million of ARRA stimulus funds, which MTC assigned last spring to the OAC over the cries of transit advocates. It also includes $50 million of BART Seismic Retrofit funds ($37 million Regional Measure 2, $13 million Proposition 1B), and $20 million of State Local Partnership Program funds.
Allocating this money to the Oakland Airport Connector would be a very unwise decision. The project is ill-conceived, and it should be scrapped and replaced with something that works better and costs less. I will admit upfront that this is a rather long post. But please read through to the end, and then take a little time today to contact MTC, or attend the meeting. This is an uphill battle, but MTC should know that the public knows that the OAC is one of the worst transit expansion projects in the region. The meeting and contact information are given at the end of the post.
A connector between Oakland Airport and BART has been studied since 1970, but most efforts have been concentrated in the past decade. In November 2000, it was advertised to Alameda County voters in Measure B as costing about $130 million, though that figure even then was known to be a lowball. BART certified an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project in March 2002, anticipating a project cost of $230 million. But the project cost has more than quadrupled since the initial 2000 figure, and it is now estimated to cost around $550 million, even while the project gets diluted to include fewer benefits.
Last year the project finally looked to be dead when the private partners (who were supposed to supply much of the project funding) withdrew. But then MTC decided that $70 million of ARRA federal stimulus funds would be applied to the OAC, instead of being distributed to agencies for preventive maintenance purposes. That is, of course, just one piece of the alphabet soup pie. There are several other sources of funding: Measure B ($89 million distributed by ACTIA), the State Transportation Improvement Program ($21 million), the State-Local Partnership Program ($20 million), bridge tolls ($31 million Regional Measure 1, $78 million Regional Measure 2), reprogrammed BART seismic retrofit funds ($50 million from RM2 and Proposition 1B), the Port of Oakland ($44 million), and the FTA’s Penta-P program ($25 million). If you were doing the math, you know that that even these sources do not cover the entire the cost, so BART will also pursue a TIFIA loan (up to $150 million) to cover the remainder. This puts BART on the hook to pay back the debt with fare revenue.
Paying More, but Getting Less
The 2002 EIR for the Oakland Airport Connector favored an Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) system. It concluded that AGT would attract the most riders: 13,540 riders by 2020 (10,200 of which would be new riders). BART also considered, but ultimately rejected, a “Quality Bus” alternative that the EIR guessed would attract under 3,000 new riders by 2020. However, these numbers are based on a key set of background assumptions that favored AGT over the Quality Bus. In particular, these concrete assumptions were included:
- Shorter travel times: The EIR contemplated an 8.2-minute AGT trip with reliable headways. This compared to existing AirBART service, which had runs that were 6-25 minutes long, were less reliably spaced, and were subject to future increases in roadway traffic congestion.
- A direct and seamless connection: The EIR assumed that the OAC, built as AGT, would have an Airport station providing a direct connection to the terminals.
- Existence of intermediate stations: Between the passage of 2000 Measure B in Alameda County (which included the OAC among its projects), and the certification of the EIR in 2002, the City of Oakland pushed for two intermediate stops to be built between Coliseum BART and the Airport, located at approximately Edgewater and Doolittle. The inclusion of intermediate stops, which would serve existing businesses and encourage new development along the Hegenberger corridor, would essentially have transformed the OAC into a short transit line, making it more useful than just an airport shuttle. By 2002, BART realized that these intermediate stops would be an important part of the OAC’s success. The two intermediate stops alone were projected to serve 4,520 riders by the year 2020, constituting 33% of all riders by 2020.
These assumptions were strong factors contributing to the high figure of 13,540 riders. The problem is that now, the background assumptions supporting that projection are no longer true. And all aspects that have changed tend to favor lower ridership.
The assumption that an AGT would provide a more “seamless” connection is no longer true, since the direct pedestrian connection from OAC to the terminals has been removed, and passengers will have to descend to ground level to access the terminal. A bus like AirBART, even with a single stop at the Airport, would now be more “seamless” than the OAC, because the bus has the flexibility to stop right in front of the terminal. Travel times have thus been adjusted, so that a trip on the OAC from Coliseum BART to the Airport will take longer than BART supposed in 2002 (12-15 minutes now vs. 8.2 minutes then), and thus is comparable to existing AirBART service. Increasingly, then, the alleged travel time and convenience advantage of AGT over a bus is starting to look like a wash, particularly since roadway widening and other improvements near the Airport have eased traffic snarls in the area.
The OAC will also be less useful than BART once supposed, since the two intermediate stations have been removed. In 2002, BART said the intermediate stations would serve one-third of the line’s riders by 2020, so eliminating them will accordingly reduce ridership. Finally, BART will now require OAC riders to pay a $6 fare in each direction, $12 round-trip, so that the fares can be used to pay off the TIFIA loan. But this high fare will, quite understandably, discourage riders who would otherwise want to use the Connector. For many travelers, the OAC fare by itself would probably cost more than the first leg of the trip (BART fare from elsewhere in the Bay Area to the Coliseum Station). It will certainly cost more than either AirBART or AC Transit bus #50/#805, all of which now serve the Airport. Incidentally, the combination of high fare and the lack of intermediate stations will make it undesirable for local employees to use the OAC as a transit option.
Because the ridership projections from 2002 are based on assumptions that are no longer true, we have no reason to believe that the EIR’s projections are true either. BART has, in fact, recently adjusted those numbers, and it now predicts a far lower ridership than what the EIR suggested in 2002. BART claims the new ridership projections are really more like financial figuring than true projections. Make of that what you will — but the diminished “projection” may be the only realistic BART ridership projection in the past decade. Several factors were considered:
- A completely new aviation forecast that predicts less than half the number of passenger trips at Oakland Airport than the EIR originally predicted for the year 2020;
- An expensive $6 fare each direction;
- The two eliminated stations at Edgewater and Doolittle;
- At least 50% longer travel time between BART and the Airport, and a low quality connection to the terminals;
- The fact that Oakland Airport is expected to lose about 3,700 trips per day because of short-haul intrastate flights displaced by California high-speed rail.
In 2006-07, AirBART reached a peak ridership of about 1.3 million annual riders (or about 3,500 daily riders). In 2008, ridership declined in accordance with the declining air traffic at Oakland Airport, to 969,000 annual riders (about 2,650 daily riders). BART’s forecasts suggest that air travel will decline further and then begin to grow again in the middle of the next decade, so that by the year 2020, air traffic at Oakland will be comparable to what it is now, and AirBART ridership will have risen back to about 2,600 daily riders.
So how would the OAC perform, under BART’s newest projections? Fairly dismally, considering the cost. Assuming a $6 fare, the OAC is projected to have 3,770 to 4,670 total daily riders by 2020. A comparable travel time, and a modest increase in ridership over the status quo — which is a bus operating in mixed flow traffic. After over a half billion dollars of investment? Permit me to say that I’m not impressed.
Paying Less, but Getting More
It has been apparent now for several years that we would be better off replacing the OAC with a simpler, more cost-effective improvement to AirBART, but that has never been more true than now. Since this spring, when MTC stepped in to revive the dying Connector with federal stimulus dollars, TransForm quite rapidly put together its RapidBART proposal (PDF), which constitutes a more cost-effective bus alternative that I, for one, would much rather ride to the Airport than the OAC. With no need to charge exorbitantly high fares to pay off the TIFIA loan debt, RapidBART would be free to ride. Comfortable 60-foot articulated vehicles would use transit priority signals and queue jump lanes to move effectively through traffic. The proposal includes close connections from Coliseum BART to RapidBART, and again from RapidBART to a Terminal 1/Terminal 2 station at the Airport. There would also be an additional RapidBART station built at low-cost to serve the future Terminal 3 — an amenity that would likely not be built with the OAC. Travel time on RapidBART is estimated to be the same as the OAC, but total trip time would be reduced because of the more direct connection to the terminal. The fact that RapidBART would be free to ride would be a boon to ridership.
RapidBART (courtesy of TransForm).
BART has been frustratingly dismissive of this well-conceived alternative, claiming that its 2002 EIR already considered but rejected a similar alternative — the Quality Bus (which would have taken advantage of transit priority signals placed throughout the route). As we discussed above, the Quality Bus was measured against a very different version of the OAC, which, at that point, was fast and had four stations. But the OAC has been progressively diluted to cut costs, so its performance looks less and less impressive when compared to a cheaper rapid bus option.
Also, the Quality Bus is not an apples-to-apples comparison, because while the AGT project evaluated in 2002 had intermediate stops (that substantially increased its ridership), the Quality Bus had no intermediate stops between Coliseum BART and the Airport. The RapidBART proposal, in contrast, would include one intermediate stop that would serve the Hegenberger corridor and thereby increase the popularity of the route. All in all, it’s a good proposal that improves upon both AirBART and the Quality Bus alternative.
The OAC as it stands now — with its intermediate stations removed, and no firm financial commitment to ever build them, along with a degraded connection to the Airport terminals — is actually objectively inferior to a rapid bus solution like RapidBART, despite costing dramatically more to build. This suggests the OAC should be scrapped and thought out more carefully. BART and MTC owe it to the public to ensure that public dollars are spent wisely. That means fairly evaluating the OAC — as it currently stands, not as it stood in 2002 — and comparing it to more cost-effective solutions like RapidBART.
Rather than carrying out transportation planning on the basis of maximizing benefits to contractors (and the number of impressive ribbon-cutting ceremonies), we should concentrate on getting the most bang for the buck with limited dollars. The Oakland Airport Connector, unfortunately, epitomizes the former rather than the latter.
Providing adequate funding for Bay Area transit operations over the next 25 years will be a serious problem. As sales tax revenue has decreased, TDA funding has decreased, and the State eliminated State Transit Assistance (STA) funding. The legality of that decision is still being debated, but until it is definitively decided, this still represents a pot of money we don’t have. The most recent update to the RTP projects an $8.5 billion total deficit for transit operations throughout the region for the next 25 years. We ought to concentrate on narrowing that gap, rather than indulge in building luxury items like the OAC, which promise to under-perform and exacerbate the problem.
It’s easy to see just how wasteful the OAC is, by comparing it to other projects around the region. The OAC route is about 3.2 miles long. AC Transit’s BRT line, on the other hand, is a little over half the cost of the OAC for an 18-mile corridor — and BRT would attract significantly more new riders long-term than the OAC. The BRT project will cost about $14-15 million per mile. Also, consider SMART in the North Bay. Although it would cost the same amount to build, SMART will rehabilitate a 70-mile rail corridor, re-energize North Bay downtowns, and also attract more riders than the OAC. SMART will cost about $8 million per mile. And the OAC? Pushing $175 million per mile, despite carrying tremendously lower benefit than either SMART or AC Transit’s BRT.
Bottom line: this project has morphed significantly since Alameda County voters approved the connector in 2000 as part of Measure B — so much so that it is really no longer the same project — and all the changes have been detrimental. Our humble advice to the Bay Area’s transit planners on high? Reserve some money to build an improved rapid bus link, ditch the TIFIA loan, and leave the rest of the funds in place for some more worthy purpose. Oh, and restore the $70 million of ARRA stimulus funds to transit agencies for preventive maintenance, which is where the money should have gone in the first place.
You can attend the MTC meeting this Wednesday, July 22 at 10:00 am (101 8th Street, Oakland), at which MTC will make its funding allocation decision. Alternatively, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, encouraging MTC to withhold this funding and study a more cost-effective solution. Please also contact your Commissioner directly.