BART, East Bay, Economic Stimulus, MTC, Oakland, Oakland Airport Connector

Is the Oakland Airport Connector Dead?

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?

The Battle

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.

The War

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.”



8 thoughts on “Is the Oakland Airport Connector Dead?

  1. Well, OAC has seemed like a bad monster movie all along, so it shouldn’t surprise us if the apparently-dead monster rouses one more time before we can finally put a stake through its heart.

    Fortunately Title VI is a good candidate to create that stake — especially since the MTC has been told by the Feds that it needs to both pay attention to its grantees and also comply in its own process and funding choices.

    Both BART and its MTC overlord have been notorious for approving mainly gold-plated projects that run through or past poor neighborhoods to benefit rich mostly-white suburbanite commuters — not exactly what Title VI had in mind.

    Which explains why, for example, the East Bay BRT project has become an MTC (and just recently FTA) funded darling. Linking three actual center-cities (San Leandro, Oakland and Berkeley), getting this actually built can give the MTC a “see — we get it” excuse that might help divert unwanted attention from the other bad stuff they’re still approving. The tragedy is that a better OAC project also “coulda been a contender, instead of a bum.”

    So the thing with Title VI and BART, the MTC and the OAC is this: finally “completing” the OAC Title VI analysis after “inadvertently failing to do so in time” is only the beginning of the problems for the OAC. They have to deliver a complete, accurate and unbiased analysis of community impacts — and if they do so they will be “surprised to learn” that the impacts are severe and the only adequate mitigation is to scrap the OAC choo-choo train in favor of the cheaper, lower-fare, better-service and faster BRT alternative that actually stops in the local community along the way.

    This now looks to be pretty much baked in the cake. We only need to keep up the pressure, so that in the end we can help provide the hammer for that decisive stake in the heart.

    Posted by Alan from Berkeley | 22 February 2010, 1:59 pm
  2. BART should have done a better job planning for this and made the necessary adjustments to comply with the act.

    A rail connection to Oakland Airport is beneficial overall, it will help to put the entire Bay Area, including Oakland, at a competitive advantage as we integrate our transit hubs. I can only hope that BART can’t screw this up any more than it has already.

    Posted by ryan | 22 February 2010, 6:34 pm
  3. While Title VI was clearly quite helpful in this case to block the funding, it isn’t a magic bullet, and it has plenty of limitations. That’s not to say it won’t play a role in the future; only to say that MTC and BART still have options open to them, particularly over a longer time scale. Title VI and similar mechanisms are forced to take an oblique approach because the federal government doesn’t pass rigorous judgment on local transit projects. Other FTA requirements, by the way, are structured so as to actually encourage “non-Title VI” projects.

    Posted by Eric | 23 February 2010, 8:21 am
  4. I’m not sure the OAC is still a “rail” project, or if it ever was. I think they’re talking rubber-tired people-mover cars pulled by cable.

    Should this even be a BART project? It seems airports usually build their own people-movers, like the one at SFO that connects BART to the terminals and rental cars. And I don’t think people-movers usually charge $12 round trip.

    Posted by MikeOnBike | 23 February 2010, 10:51 am
  5. I’d like to know what BART/MTC is going to do with the rest of the money that’s been allocated to the OAC. Are they going to sit on it while looking for more funding for OAC or repurpose it for other projects that can break ground ASAP?

    If it’s the former, then they are the ones responsible for jobs not being created.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 23 February 2010, 12:13 pm
  6. The “Cat with 9 lives” metaphor is an interesting one. It seems also, that the media really used poor wording when the $70M was denied. CBS5, for example, had their reporter (or he chose to use the words) that the project is “dead”…such a load of crap. For a reporter to be so naïve to say something that premature makes me wonder where they come from.
    I support the connector, provided that it is done in a way that is efficient, convenient, and leads to growth at OAK. Those advocates who kept whining about it not making multiple stops were being ignorant (or forgetful) of AC Transit already doing that…he-lloooo. The connector–in hopes that it succeeds–should get passengers between the BART station and OAK in no more than 8 minutes, as planned. With a bid $60M less than projected, I am hoping that BART doesn’t fudge this up again too.

    Posted by david | 25 February 2010, 3:06 am
  7. I support the connector, provided that it is done in a way that is efficient, convenient, and leads to growth at OAK.

    That’s just the thing… it won’t. It will barely even have any effect on transit share on the Hegenberger corridor, let alone growth at the Oakland Airport. Even BART has admitted this. The OAC is dependent on the Airport passenger volumes — not the other way around.

    Those advocates who kept whining about it not making multiple stops were being ignorant (or forgetful) of AC Transit already doing that…he-lloooo.

    I disagree on this point. Fixed guideway transit spurs transit-oriented development in a way that a standard bus line cannot. Each intermediate station offers the chance good for TOD and urban design that will improve and lift the neighborhood. An elevated Connector with no intermediate station only casts shadows while carrying zero benefit for the neighborhood. It makes no sense to spend so much money for a transit project that would (i) provide no transit benefit and (ii) provide no economic development benefit. But that’s exactly where we are now.

    Moreover, it limits the type of rider that will use the OAC. If you have stations with new development, you enhance the transit corridor with ridership that uses those stations, rather than just the Airport. An OAC with no intermediate stations can only serve one transit purpose, and its ridership will suffer as a result. But ridership suffering –> even higher fares (assuming BART can even get the TIFIA loan), because BART will have to use fare revenue to pay back the loan.

    With a bid $60M less than projected, I am hoping that BART doesn’t fudge this up again too.

    Unfortunately, that bid will bid result in a slow, clumsy project. But that’s the only bid that BART could afford (assuming it had the full set of federal funding that it has now been denied).

    Posted by Eric | 25 February 2010, 8:05 am
  8. @David

    ~ $500 million
    ~ the same number of riders
    ~ the same trip time (8 minutes is an old number after massive budget overruns it’s now over 12 minutes, at the same time, traffic has eased so the bus is now faster)

    “I support the connector, provided that it is done in a way that is efficient, convenient, and leads to growth at OAK.”

    That’s the problem, the original project was fine, the overbudget underperforming project as it exists is by no means efficient or convenient, it’s just a lot of money spent for no real benefit.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 26 February 2010, 11:15 am

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