Groundhog Day came a couple days early this year. Yesterday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission faced yet another contentious meeting regarding the BART Oakland Airport Connector. And the Commission faced a remarkably similar question to that which it faced almost one year ago. This time, though, the stakes were higher.
Last year, BART promised to MTC and the Bay Area that it could deliver a shovel-ready OAC on the fast-paced federal stimulus timeline. Implicit in that promise is that BART would do so in full compliance with applicable laws and regulations. That, as we know, has not quite worked out. BART betrayed not just MTC’s trust, but also the public’s trust — for it neglected to carry out required Title VI analysis, while moving at breakneck speed to stick to the schedule. In the process, BART misrepresented the project’s “benefits” — for example, stating at public meetings that the Connector might produce up to 15,000 jobs, but only committing to a few hundred jobs when putting it down in writing to the federal government. It shut out and attempted to actively discredit the valuable, well-reasoned concerns expressed by the community and advocacy groups — concerns that BART is now forced to confront, since they were directly echoed by FTA when FTA withheld the $70 million of ARRA funds pending BART’s completion of the Title VI equity analysis. As we’ve discussed, that $70 million would be completely lost to the Bay Area if BART cannot submit by March 5 a plan that is to FTA’s satisfaction.
But MTC is implicated here, as well: for MTC’s charge is not to build the Airport Connector, nor is it to fulfill BART’s every wish. Its charge is to program transportation dollars that are made available to the region. Because the Bay Area plans to build and operate more projects than it can currently fund, that charge necessarily includes making sound use of any and all monies that become available — particularly monies over which MTC is granted a measure of discretion. And that means holding tight onto the $70 million and allocating it smartly, rather than gambling it away on the OAC.
Going into yesterday’s meeting, MTC faced two action options, irreverently summarized below:
- Option 1: There are dozens of construction workers rallying outside right now and filling up this auditorium, and BART did promise that this project would create thousands of jobs. So let’s not desert the OAC quite yet. Instead, let’s wait until mid-February, and see what BART comes up with. Never mind that the longer we wait, the more risky it gets that the Bay Area will lose the money. After all, we have been talking about the OAC for decades, so what’s two more weeks?
- Option 2: Enough is enough. We gave BART its chance, but it’s just too risky that we’ll lose the $70 million. Bay Area transit agencies are seriously hurting because Sacramento has basically abandoned them, and they need our help (and yes, that includes BART itself). Anyway, operating transit provides jobs too. Allocate this money immediately to the Tier 2 projects, so that the transit agencies can use the money for system preservation and ease ever-widening budget gaps.
Unsurprisingly, MTC voted 11-5 in favor of a modified version of Option 1. The five lone Commissioners who get it include among their numbers the few Commissioners who got it before. The golden five who voted against the motion were Bates (Alameda), Daly (San Francisco), Halsted (BCDC), Lempert (San Mateo), and Mackenzie (Sonoma). So now MTC will have a special meeting on February 17 to gauge how BART is doing with respect to the equity analysis, and to get a better sense for whether FTA is likely to grant its approval by March 5.
MTC will likely continue supporting the OAC unless there is a very strong signal from FTA in mid-February that BART’s work is not up to par. In that case, the risk of losing the $70 million would be high, and maybe even the most stubborn Commissioners could be swayed to change course. At the MTC meeting, though, Dorothy Dugger said that BART has been corresponding extensively with FTA and was already working in full force to complete the required Title VI action plan, which will include both the OAC and other aspects of the agency. The plan may even be submitted to the FTA by next week. For right now, at least, the fate of the OAC is up in the air until we get a better indication from MTC and FTA as to the adequacy of BART’s corrective action plan.
One might think that the Bay Area — which is, in so many ways, a progressive and compassionate place — would be governed by agencies that share similar values. In the realm of transportation, especially in hard times, that means prioritizing core vital transit service — and the riders who depend upon that service — above an overpriced construction project which will attract few riders and will certainly provide no benefit to the disadvantaged and transit-dependent. Alas, it was not meant to be. At least not yet: though advocates typically have been a few steps ahead of MTC and have worked to get the Commission to mend its ways. But with respect to the Airport Connector, at least, a chance was given for MTC to show its quality. It did — and that’s something that all Bay Area residents who care about transportation should file away in back of their minds for when, in the near future, we hear more of the Commission’s thoughts on transit sustainability in the Bay Area.
I am starting to hope that MTC goes ahead and gives the $ to OAC, only to have the FTA take it away. This would blow the lid off what goes on at the MTC – an organization with huge power, that few people know much about. $70m is a high price to pay, but it might be worth the price – in the long run.
In my head, I’ve started thinking of the MTC as a “death panel” for local mass transit agencies. Every sinister fantasy Republicans had about rationing in the health care system is embodied in the MTC: it’s an unelected, unaccountable panel of bureacrats making life-or-death decisions about which transit agencies get to live and which ones get no treatment.
For much of the meeting, I was standing in the corner of the room where Dugger and James Fang and Carol Ward Allen et al. were sitting, and the cronyism was palpable, as union officials and politicians and other movers and shakers came up to greet the BART officials, and they all literally patted one another on the back. Given their cheerful, smug mood before the meeting even started, it was obvious that they knew that the fix was in. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but somehow I thought that in this case the MTC might actually make the right decision becaose of the combination of (a) a flagrantly lousy project to begin with and (b) the FTA’s extremely explicit warning in its Jan. 15th letter.
What I found most galling, perhaps, was that none of the speakers supporting the OAC even attempted to claim that it would actually provide any benefits to passengers. There was vague talk about how it would be a “legacy” handed down to future generations, and how it would somehow miraculously transform Oakland into a “world-class city,” but I don’t think even Dugger tried to argue that it would make a trip to the airport any easier (it certainly won’t make it cheaper either). If job-creation is the only real rationale for a project, then you might as well build something that doesn’t replicate an existing service at double the cost. It’s so infuriating!
(My blood starts to boil whenever I start writing about this, so I better go think about something else for a while…)
“the fix was in” Yup, MTC, a wholly owned subsidiary of BART whose primary mission is construction contracts for politically connected firms — functional transit optional.
A little more on the blow-by-blow objections to BART’s equity review in Armand Emamdjomeh’s post on the NYT Bay Area blog. http://bayarea.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/could-70-million-for-the-oakland-airport-connector-be-better-spent/