Last night, the Oakland City Council voted on two meaty, controversial transportation topics back-to-back. First up was the parking meter fee controversy. Parking meter fees were rolled back from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on a 6-1 vote, and billboard revenue would be used toward filling the budget shortfall that has been reintroduced with the Council’s retreat from parking. Given indications from various Councilmembers that they were planning to succumb to the public outcry over the increased parking fees, the vote in favor of rolling back the fees was disappointing, but not surprising.
Immediately after parking, the Council heard the Oakland Airport Connector. In spite of the Chronicle reporting that the City Council was leaning toward opposing the Connector, the Council did not ultimately adopt the resolution proposed jointly by Kaplan and Nadel. (That was the resolution that would have opposed the Connector, while supporting a more cost-effective bus alternative that would have allowed ARRA federal stimulus funds to be distributed to Bay Area transit agencies.)
Instead, the Council went with a substitute motion from Ignacio De La Fuente. That motion — which was passed with 5 ayes, 0 nays, and 2 abstained — is a resolution that supports the OAC. But the resolution conditions the Council’s support of the project on three things:
- Local hiring requirements, in the form of 50% of job hours for area residents and 25% of job hours to Oaklanders;
- Inclusion of an intermediate station in the plan, and the use of anticipated savings created by potential low bids to build that station; and
- Carrying out of impact and equity analysis regarding the OAC’s fare, and its effect on the working residents of Oakland.
The Councilmembers offered a wide variety of reactions to the Oakland Airport Connector, and the quality of their comments ranged anywhere from well-informed to clueless. Nancy Nadel opposed the OAC because the project had changed so much since voters approved it, and because the current project costs too much, is too slow, and doesn’t even take passengers directly into the terminal. Rebecca Kaplan pointed out that both the City’s and the voters’ support of the OAC several years ago was largely predicated on the promise that the OAC would provide robust service to the Hegenberger corridor in the form of two intermediate stations between Oakland Airport and Coliseum BART, stations that have since been eliminated. She also took issue with BART’s wildly fluctuating projections/fabrications with respect to job creation. (An email from BART’s Kerry Hamill suggested that the OAC could generate as many as 15,000 direct and indirect jobs, even though BART’s application to the Federal Transit Administration for funding was only willing to stand by 689 jobs, a figure that is consistent with the Environmental Impact Report certified in 2002. BART GM Dorothy Dugger, after admitting publicly that BART’s application to the feds for funding was not very well-written, continued to support the proposition that 2,542 jobs, as counted per year, was an “extremely conservative” estimate, and that a formula created by APTA projected as many as 14,000 jobs.)
On the flip side of the spectrum, Larry Reid supported the OAC because so much energy has been expended on this project, and because he wanted Oakland Airport to stay competitive in the region. Jean Quan and Pat Kernighan supported the OAC because they wanted a project that would generate much-needed local jobs in the midst of a serious recession, but were also concerned that the local hiring provisions were stated as wishy-washy goals rather than enforceable requirements. Incredibly, Kernighan — who had just gotten through opposing the parking fee increase because a $2 meter fee was apparently too expensive a burden for drivers to bear — opined that the $6 one-way fare on the OAC, by contrast, is actually quite reasonable! After all (she continued): business travelers would not mind the fee, the fare still costs less than a taxi, and Airport employees can always just ride the bus instead. You know, just in case Airport employees happen to feel disenfranchised as a result of dropping a significant percentage of their daily wage on riding a superfluous elevated airport connector for 3 miles.
Kernighan and Quan also both demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the various types of funding that have been pooled together for the OAC. Quan, for instance, believed that the choice between canceling the OAC on the one hand, and redirecting federal money to transit agencies on the other hand, was a “false choice,” because the money could not be reallocated to public transportation. This is quite untrue. The $25 million of public/private partnership funds from the FTA would no longer be available for use in the Bay Area, but if the $70 million of federal stimulus funds were not spent on the OAC, they would be redistributed to other Bay Area transit agencies: with about 25% going to Muni, 25% for BART, 17% for VTA, 10% for AC Transit, and the remainder going to Caltrain, SamTrans, Golden Gate Transit, and the region’s assorted small transit operators. This is really where the federal stimulus money should have gone in the first place.
Jane Brunner, meanwhile, did not contest the false claim that the Port’s contribution, if not allocated to the OAC, would simply “go away.” And what’s more, she appeared perfectly willing to support a bad project, simply because the OAC represented a commitment to spend those dollars in Oakland. It is true that if the OAC were canceled, Oakland would not realistically be able to recapture all of the local and regional project money for its own use on other transportation improvements within Oakland, and Brunner was upset by the fact that Oakland could lose out on all that money. At the same time, though, the OAC is monopolizing a lot of money, thereby diverting that money away from other projects that would provide more tangible and substantial benefits for riders. It is not really enough to commit transportation dollars in Oakland if those dollars are spent on a project like the OAC, which, in its current form, provides little to no benefit for Oakland.
In the end, the Council went with De La Fuente’s motion of conditional support. It would have been nice to have gotten a definitive resolution from the Council opposing the Connector. The silver lining, though, is that transit advocates really did make a strong showing at the meeting — for the first time speaking in front of a governmental body that was willing to take the criticism to heart. There were 104 speaker cards filed for the OAC agenda item, and many of those speakers were adamantly opposed to the OAC. The Council heard the storm of opposition, and De La Fuente’s substitute motion reflects the concerns of Mayor Dellums and two of the core complaints that transit advocates have repeatedly raised against the OAC — both the exorbitantly high $6 one-way fare that will foreclose many locals and Airport employees from using the service, and the lack of an intermediate station that would spur transit-oriented development and offer an opportunity to do good urban design on Hegenberger. It of course remains to be seen if and how these issues will be addressed; and it remains to be seen how the City will react in the not-unlikely event that BART fails to adequately correct or mitigate what the Council’s adopted resolution identifies as the Connector’s most critical defects.