Last week brought the great news that FTA refused to disburse $70 million of ARRA federal stimulus dollars to the BART Oakland Airport Connector. The natural follow-up question is one I have now been asked numerous times by friends and blog readers: is the Connector dead? Have we at last melted the Wicked Witch of the West? I figured that I would just write a post. As I summarized in response to a reader comment from an earlier post:
Is the OAC dead? While I’d love to say “yes,” in good conscience I can only say the answer here is “no” — or, at the least, “not yet.”
BART is of course convinced, or at least puts on a brave face, that the project is not dead. The agency’s commitment remains steadfast, we are told, as though abandoning the project at this late stage would dishonorably betray the trust of the public. (Quite the opposite.) This reaction, while predictable, is disappointing. Rather than take a step back to reevaluate the mistakes of the past year; rather than internalize FTA’s comments and take them to heart; rather than work with the community to cooperate on a mutually beneficial solution — BART evinced bitterness and indignation when things did not go its way. BART, which for so many people is the face of public transportation in the Bay Area, should, perhaps more than any other transit agency, go out of its way to embody the compassionate values of this region. That the Bay Area’s most well-known transit agency would claim it had acted in full compliance with the Civil Rights Act when it, in fact, had not — all while allegedly acting in the name of public benefit, and while spending public dollars — is, quite frankly, embarrassing for this native of the Bay Area.
No Stimulus Funding For You
BART’s reaction also does a disservice to the public by downplaying and masking the actual severity of the defeat that the Connector was dealt. Although FTA’s recent exchange with BART specifically focused on the $70 million of ARRA stimulus funding (on account of its more immediate deadlines), a local agency that is not in full compliance with federal law is not entitled to receive any federal monies until it brings itself into compliance. Or, stated differently, a federal agency like FTA may not fund a local agency that is known to be in violation of federal law. Depending on the exact timeline of BART’s Title VI corrective plan, this implicates not just the $70 million ARRA, but also $104 million of other federal money needed for the OAC, including a $79 million TIFIA loan. That means that 35% of the $492 million total project funding is implicated.
A smaller defeat, but a defeat nonetheless, came in the form of the TIGER grant funds that were announced last week. Remember when we talked about this last summer? MTC studied some Bay Area projects, matched them to the federal criteria for the TIGER program, and produced a short list of $133 million worth of requests for the TIGER funding. Two of the four projects were associated with BART: a $5 million payment toward the Airport Connector’s TIFIA loan, along with a separate request for expanding the Hayward Yard. Both BART projects were denied TIGER funding (not surprising, given the timing of the Title VI complaint). The other two Bay Area projects, however, both received TIGER funding. Doyle Drive received $46 million, and the Green Trade Corridor (linking the Ports of Oakland, Stockton, and West Sacramento) received $30 million.
FTA Turns Next to MTC
The Title VI complaint filed against the Airport Connector may have opened a “Pandora’s Box” of more far-reaching implications. Cheryl Hershey of FTA sent a letter addressed to MTC, dated February 3, 2010 (see pages 6-7 of this PDF). That letter indicates that FTA has broadened its oversight of Bay Area transit funding to include not just BART, but also MTC. After all, MTC has repeatedly proven itself more than willing to fund the Airport Connector, oblivious and/or indifferent to any Title VI deficiencies. Why did MTC, before eagerly dishing out federal funds to a project that was ineligible to receive them, not do its due diligence on the Airport Connector? Or for that matter, any of the projects that it funds? Inquiring minds at FTA want to know:
As you are aware, BART is a subrecipient of the MTC, and, therefore, MTC is responsible for ensuring its subrecipients comply with Title VI . . . . Your agency is responsible for documenting a process that ensures that all MTC subrecipients are in compliance with the reporting requirements of FTA . . .
The fact that BART has not conducted the necessary service equity analysis for the OAC project or fare equity analysis raises concerns that your agency does not have procedures in place to monitor its subrecipients.
FTA goes on to request that MTC document its Title VI procedures within 30 days. Is the comedy of errors still unfolding?
In short, there is no doubt that the denial of this stimulus funding is an important victory. The OAC is now not eligible for federal funding, and the poor state of the economy has diminished additional local and state funding sources on which the OAC might otherwise rely. That means that the project is, at least, postponed. Urban Habitat, TransForm, Genesis, and last, but certainly not least, Public Advocates, who prepared and filed the initial Title VI complaint with FTA, deserve all of our gratitude and appreciation. These local organizations persevered throughout one year of countless government meetings, each one seemingly more frustrating than the last, but never giving up so as long as another avenue for advocacy was available.
Their commitment to social and environmental justice, in a field that sometimes escapes mainstream attention — not the luxury, but the basic right of people, no matter their race or income level, to have access to a dependable and dignified means of transportation — is inspiring. Their months of hard work deserve credit, because a denial of this sort does not just fall magically from the sky (or in this case, Washington DC). It happens because real people, who are committed to a cause, put in real time to research and follow up on an opportunity, even if it seems like a long shot. That is what happened here, and it clearly paid off. Needy, cash-strapped agencies will now have $70 million available to use for projects that will put people to work, while more tangibly improving transit for people throughout the Bay Area. That’s a great thing. When it comes to the battle for the stimulus funding, there is not a shred of doubt that the transit advocates handily won.
But what about the war? Not just for the OAC, but also for other megaprojects that ring up a large tab while falling short on function? It’s extremely difficult to stop projects like this, in large part because they are propped up by deep roots — mechanisms of institutional support that are never printed on the pages of a government report, nor aired in the public halls of a government meeting. And even if one project were, by some miracle, to be stopped, several others are queued up right behind it, waiting patiently for funding as they have waited in years past. These projects have effectively been promised to constituents for decades, so there is an expectation that they will eventually be built, even if it does take a very long time. Changing that underlying modus operandi is difficult, because it cuts to the decisionmakers themselves and their political connections, as well as the culture of a prevailing political, business, and administrative complex. In other words, it goes far beyond denying one source of funding for one project.
Hearing of BART’s continued commitment to the Airport Connector, and knowing the history of MTC and BART, I would not be surprised if down the road we see the OAC — that proverbial cat with nine lives — come back from the dead yet another time. In fact, I would be more surprised if we didn’t see it return. The OAC was thought to be laid to rest on previous occasions, only to be revived, as it was revived in 2009 by the stimulus. There is also no doubt in my mind that MTC will thoroughly review every last transportation funding program offered at every level of government, and every last pot of money — looking for what, exactly? In persistent search of obscure conditions and loopholes, just to find a way to shift around enough money to refill the Airport Connector’s freshly-opened capital budget hole, substantial hole though it may be. What initially seem like neutral pots of money take on a life and significance of their own. This is just what MTC does, and it will do so here.
Then again, a few years ago, I would not have guessed that federal stimulus dollars would become available, nor would I have guessed that the Connector would ultimately be denied that funding because of a Title VI violation. But the ingenuity and creativity of our local organizations showed us otherwise. Despite the history, maybe you really never know.
So, is the Oakland Airport Connector dead? While I’d love to say “yes,” in good conscience I can only say the answer here is “no” — or, at the least, “not yet.”