Catching up on the Oakland Airport Connector

Tomorrow morning, the Oakland City Council’s Public Works Committee will be discussing the Oakland Airport Connector (PDF) project. There’s been a lot of debate about the project at various meetings all Spring and in the media, and I thought it might be helpful to give some background information on the project to help ground the discussion as it continues.

Measure B, round 1 – 1998

A direct connection between the Coliseum BART Station and the Oakland Airport has been a dream of local officials since before BART even opened, but despite five feasibility studies over three decades, and an ultimately doomed stab at Federal grant funding in the early 1990s, the project just never managed to make it off the ground. The Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) finally got a shot at becoming reality in 1998, when Alameda County’s half-cent transportation sales tax came up for renewal.

The tax, which provided funding for a variety of transportation improvements, mostly in the form of highway projects, had passed easily in 1986, and was set to expire in 2002. The proposed 15-year extension including funding for a number of transit projects, including $65 million for the OAC and $165 million for a BART expansion to Warm Springs in Fremont, plus some money for local operators like AC Transit. But mostly, the money was designated for highway projects.

Environmental and transportation advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club and BATLUC (now called TransForm) vigorously opposed the measure, characterizing the transit allocation as “crumbs,” and saying the proposed spending plan would encourage sprawl. Alameda County voters seemed inclined to agree, and come election day, Measure B went down in flames, gathering only 58% of the vote, well below the two-thirds threshold required for passage.

Refusing to be discouraged by not having any available funding, BART continued to work on the OAC, aided by $4 million in State funding to cover environmental review costs and a $1 million grant from the California Transportation Commission for an engineering study. Questions about funding were dismissed by BART’s spokesman, who called the then $130 million tramway “a very viable project.”

Measure B, round 2 – 2000

Meanwhile, Alameda County officials, desperate to renew their sales tax, were back at the negotiating table, trying to work out a spending plan that would be acceptable to both transit advocates and the car-centric interests in the southern part of the County. After months of debate, the two sides eventually reached an agreement on a ballot measure that would extend the tax for 20 years.

The revised spending plan (PDF) included more funding for public transit operations and local road improvements, and still reserved $66 million for the OAC, a figure intended to provide half the project’s total cost. With strong support from the same groups that had fought the 1998 version, 2000′s Measure B coasted to victory, gathering 81.4% of the vote.

With the $66 million of Measure B money secured, and a $25 million committment from the Port of Oakland, only $39 million was left to be identified before the OAC could be built, which the MTC hoped to find from the State.

2000, post Measure B

A few weeks after the Measure B vote, the Oakland City Council, eager to see the OAC built, passed a resolution listing the OAC as a “top priority transportation project.” Reading the resolution (PDF), it’s easy to see why they’d be so excited about it. The connector promised to bring people to the airport in less than half the time the existing bus would take even under non-congested conditions, carrying 4 million people annually by 2020, and to contain two intermediate stops along Hegenberger, which would bring “high quality transit-oriented development” around them. Although BART was never keen on the intermediate stops due to the increased cost of building them, the City Council insisted the OAC project include two stations along Hegenberger, one at Edgewater and the other at Doolittle.

Almost immediately, it was clear that the OAC’s price tag was going to end up significantly higher than $130 million. Determined to build the connector, the MTC managed to cobble together a plan (PDF) than would provide the now-needed $232 million. The Measure B contribution (administered by ACTIA had jumped from $66 million to $75 million. The Port of Oakland was still on the hook for $25 million, and the City of Oakland was going to put up $12 million. The he project got $31 million from Regional Measure 1 (RM1) rail funds (derived from a bridge toll passed in 1988), and $45 million from ITIP, State funds earmarked for improving interregional transit. BART expected to begin construction in 2003 (PDF), and start operations by 2007. The funding plan now looked like this:

OAC officially adopted, 2002

In March 2002, the BART board certified the EIR and formally adopted the OAC project, promising a seamless connection between the Coliseum station and the Oakland Airport, without the burden of having to pay a separate fare and a travel time of only six minutes (PDF). Construction on the project was supposed to begin in 2004, with system operations beginning in 2008.

I’m not going to get into the EIR much here, since that’s really a subject for another post, but an improvement bus – similar, not identical to the RapidBART bus proposed by TransForm was studied in the EIR, but not selected because the speed and ridership for the Automated Guideway system was much better. A number of things have changed since then – factors impacting bus performance for the better and the ATG’s speed and ridership for the worse. But again, that’s a topic for another day.

Bridge tolls to the rescue, 2004

BART pre-qualified six teams (PDF) to bid on the project in late summer 2003, but funding shortfalls remained and the RFP was never issued. In 2004, another ballot measure came to the rescue. Regional Measure 2 (RM2), another $1 bridge toll, included $30 million for the OAC. The RM2 spending plan promised the $30 million would “provide the final portion of funds needed for direct BART service between the Oakland Coliseum BART/Amtrak station to terminals at the Oakland International Airport.” At this point, the project’s funding plan (PDF) looked like this:

The private sector to the rescue, 2006

By early 2005, it was clear that even with the RM2 funds, we still weren’t going to be able to build the OAC, and BART turned their hopes to other sources (PDF) of State, or possibly Federal, money. By late 2005, with prospects for obtaining more public money looking grim, BART settled on turning to private financing to close the now-$80 million shortfall, and began prepared an RFP for a Design-Build-Finance-Operate contract. The new funding plan looked like this:

After pre-qualifying three teams to compete for the now $379 million project in September 2006, BART issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) on the OAC in May 2007, with a response deadline of September the same year. By this point, both intermediate stops had been scrapped – one was cancelled permanently because we ended up getting a Wal-Mart instead of a big hotel and convention center on the site, and the other (at Doolittle) was cut out of the plans due to costs. BART said they might add the stop at some point in the future in the unlikely event that funding became available.

BART hoped to award (PDF) a contract to build the OAC by the end of 2007, and begin operations in early 2011. 10,000 daily passengers were expected to be riding the OAC by 2020, which would have a travel time of no more than 8.2 minutes (PDF). Sadly, the bidders’ cost estimates didn’t quite gel with BART’s (the estimated difference was $290 million), and despite an exciting influx of $25 million (PDF) from a new federal program designed to encourage public-private partnerships, it still looked like the money wasn’t quite there, and BART had to extend to response deadline. By the end of 2007, two of the three competing teams had walked away, leaving only a single bidder on the project. Still, as late as summer 2008 (PDF), BART was optimistic about the project, expecting to award a contract by the end of the year and have operations begin in 2012.

At this point (PDF), BART’s “conservative ridership projections” had the passenger count down to 5,400 passengers a day (PDF) in 2012 and 9,200 passengers a day in 2020.

By 2008, expected costs had risen to $459 million, RM2′s contribution had more than doubled to $68 million (PDF), and two of the three competing teams had withdrawn from the project. Still, BART was hopeful they’d be able to work something out with the remaining bidder, and predicted awarding a contract by summertime, with service starting in 2011. The funding plan looked like this:

Back to the drawing board, 2008

Eventually, after several more deadline extensions, the final team walked away (PDF), and BART conceded that it was time to start exploring a more cost efficient connection alternative. After being burned so badly by the SFO extension’s miserable failure to meet ridership and revenue projections, some at the agency thought it might be a blessing in disguise, with Director Tom Radulovich noting “We have learned we cannot have rail extensions at any cost.”

Stimulus to the rescue, 2009

Then along came the stimulus. With a giant influx of cash all of a sudden flowing into the region, it looked like there might be a new chance to plug the OAC’s giant funding hole. When the MTC announced plans to award $70 million of the region’s formula public transit money to the Airport Connector instead of directing it to local agencies for system preservation which would prevent layoffs, scores of upset transit riders packed the room, begging the MTC to give the funds to needy local agencies and explore more cost effective connection alternatives. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and the MTC decided to award $70 million of the Bay Area’s formula stimulus public transit money to the OAC, and distribute the remaining $270 million among the region’s transit operators.

Of course, the $70 million in stimulus funding didn’t come close to financing the now $550 million project. It wasn’t even enough to close the existing funding shortfall. No matter. BART expects the transbay tube seismic retrofit will come in under budget, and decided to reassign $50 million (PDF) of those funds ($37 million from RM2 and $13 million from Proposition 1B) to the OAC. Of course, that still wasn’t enough money to close the shortfall, so BART decided to borrow the rest, expecting to pay back the loan with fare revenues.

To cut costs further, they broadened the allowable technologies for the project to include slower vehicles, knocking the anticipated one way travel time up to 15 minutes. In order to pay back the loan, they raised the anticipated fare to $6 each way. (Even at this price, BART does not expect the fares from the OAC to begin covering the loan repayment costs until 2037). And of course, new projections show even lower ridership numbers, with as few as 3,770 daily passengers (PDF) riding in 2020. BART’s response to questions about the ridership forecasts are that they’re investment grade and intentionally conservative so as not to overestimate ridership, and therefore we should just ignore them and look at their old numbers from the EIR instead. WEV.

Anyway, that’s where we are today. The Public Works Committee will discuss the project tomorrow morning – the meeting starts at 9, but the Airport Connector is towards the end of the agenda, so it probably won’t start right then. But if you think the Council should be concerned about this project and the enormous amount of regional money being thrown into it at the expense of existing local jobs and other, more cost effective transportation projects, I encourage you to come and voice your thoughts.

Also, if you want to get a better sense of just where all this money is coming from, please peruse this document (PDF), which breaks it all down by funding source.

And of course, I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Catching up on the Oakland Airport Connector

  1. dto510

    To clarify, BART’s projection that fares will begin to cover connector financing costs in 2037 assumes that the Airport builds and fills a third terminal, and that an intermediate station is built. BART’s current plan does not identify any funding for an intermediate station, and the financing schemes involves Port airplane fees that would otherwise go to terminal expansion and renovation, making the terminal even less likely.

    I think a big question for Oakland is, who covers the inevitable cost overruns? There is a perception regionally that this is Oakland’s project (even thought the region is uninterested in whether Oakland actually wants it), so would we lose local transportation funds to cover the OAC’s overruns?

  2. Chris Kidd

    A case study in failed government, fragile egos, and institutional truculence. Well done, V.

  3. Becks

    V – this is awesome!

    I encourage Oaklanders who care about transit and planning to attend and speak at the Public Works Committee hearing tomorrow. Note that though the item is late on the agenda, it is possible (even likely) that it will be moved up so please arrive as close to 9am as possible. You can turn in your speaker card and then give me your cell number to call you when the item comes up. Then you can go get coffee or breakfast and not have to sit through the whole committee meeting.

  4. Max Allstadt

    Just a little more info:

    The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is chaired by a man named Scott Haggerty. Scott Haggerty is a Republican who represents Fremont on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

    At last week’s MTC meeting, Haggerty pushed the Airport Connector forward by using some sneaky and aggressive parliamentary maneuvering. Realizing that the subcommittee in session didn’t have a quorum, he used his role as Chairman to summarily appoint two allies to fill out the quorum, and won the vote.

    That’s shifty enough. But in the course of the meeting, Haggerty also said things like “Oakland doesn’t have a dog in this race”, and “The City Council can’t stop the Oakland Airport Connector”.

    This is all the more reason for Oaklanders to get involved. Do you want decisions about transit in Oakland being driven by a Republican from Fremont? A Republican from Fremont who holds an almost entirely non-competitive elected office? A Republican from Fremont who says things like “Oakland doesn’t have a dog in this race”?

    Write your Councilmember and tell them to vote against the Airport Connector. It’s a wasteful project. It’s being shoved down our throats by a suburban Republican who says arrogant, obnoxious things about Oakland.

    The reason Oakland keeps getting screwed on transit issues is that we don’t have a seat at the table. The only inner East Bay representative on the MTC is Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who’s consistently voted against the OAC boondoggle.

    Oakland is the urban heart of the East Bay and we’re getting pushed around by a bunch of gas guzzling self interested suburban conservatives. Write your Oakland City Councilmember and tell them this has to stop. Tell them to take a stand, take a vote and vote “No” on this wasteful version Airport Connector.

  5. Chuck

    This is a fantastic synopsis. And though it’s clearly slanted in the “wow, this is a not a viable solution”, it’s slanted because of those pesky facts. Always with their little fingers on the scales…

    Can’t make the meeting tomorrow AM (ironically, I’m traveling to OAK to meet my brother who’s flying in for a visit, go fig), but thanks in advance to everyone going to protest the project. Thanks, too, to Becks for the hard work on this!

  6. Chuck

    Done. So, I wrote an email to those Council members for whom I’m a constituent, expressing my concerns about the OAC as it stands. And I’m happy to goad all y’all into doing the same! ;)

    Also, V, fuckin’ awesome AJAX applet for allowing edits for a 5-minute window. Said it before and I’ll say it again: you rule.

  7. Becks

    For anyone who woke up a bit late, it looks like this item will be heard late on the agenda. They’re on item 8 now and it’s item 18. So if you’d like to come speak, you still have plenty of time.

  8. Becks

    The committee meeting went extremely well. All committee members strongly questioned the project, and they’re bringing it back as an action item to their first committee meeting in September. Thanks to everyone who sent emails about this.

    If V doesn’t beat me to it, I’ll write a comprehensive post about the meeting later this week.

  9. V Smoothe Post author

    You take the meeting, Becks. I have other, related posts I’m working on, so I’d don’t mind at all not having to write about today’s Public Works Committee. And yes, the meeting did go extremely well.

  10. PRE

    Maybe the Public Works Committee and the City Council members as a whole are finally waking up and making some decent choices for this city. The fact that a 550 million dollar, 3-mile above-ground anything doesn’t get laughed out of the room immediately is testament to the foolishness that passes for public transportation spending in this country. Now if we could only get that money spent on an Oakland streetcar system…