Please tell the MTC not to throw away $70 million in stimulus funds!

Ever since the release last week of the FTA’s letter to BART and the MTC (PDF) urging them to reprogram the $70 million in ARRA (also known as stimulus package) funds away from the Oakland Airport Connector, all the transit advocates I talk to have (understandably) been in a pretty celebratory mood.

But not me. We haven’t won anything yet. In fact, the region is now running the risk of losing entirely $70 million in stimulus funds for public transit.

This fight isn’t over until after Wednesday’s MTC meeting, when the Commission will vote on whether to gamble $70 million of regional stimulus funds on BART’s ability to comply in a timely and cooperative manner with Federal mandates or to put the money back into system preservation, saving jobs and preventing transit service cuts throughout the region. You might think, given BART’s historical inability to deliver anything in a timely manner, and given the extremely strident wording of the FTA’s letter (PDF), which really couldn’t be any more clear that keeping the money assigned to the Airport Connector is a very bad idea, that this is a no brainer, and that it’s totally obvious the Commission is going to reprogram the money. Of course, if you do think that, I’m guessing you haven’t been to too many MTC meetings.

Let’s back up for a second and take a look at how we got here. You’re all familiar by now with the history of the OAC, so we’ll skip over that part. On June 12, 2009, Public Advocates filed a request (PDF) for BART’s equity analysis on the Oakland Airport Connector. The analysis in question is required by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which basically says that you’re not supposed to spend Federal money in a way that has discriminatory impacts on minority and low income populations. The FTA requires an analysis (PDF) of Title VI compliance for all transit projects receiving Federal funding. BART responded to the request (PDF) by attaching a section of the project’s ancient EIR that handily failed to address any of the equity issues mandated by the FTA.

After BART responded to requests for the Title VI analysis basically by saying “go to hell, screw you, we’ll do whatever we want,” Public Advocates (with others) filed a complaint with the FTA over BART’s failure to require with the baseline requirements for Federal funding. It wasn’t just advocacy groups who were concerned about equity issues related to the Airport Connector. In October, the Oakland City Council offered their support for the project, contingent on three BART meeting three conditions (all of which BART proceeded to completely ignore), including an analysis of fare affordability. Then, in November, the FTA announced (PDF) that after reviewing the complaint, they felt it necessary to review BART’s Title VI compliance, not just with respect to the Airport Connector, but of the entire BART system.

In December, before they had actually secured all the Federal money they needed to finance the project (in addition to the $70 million in ARRA funds, BART is also depending on a $150 million Federal loan and a $25 million Federal grant), the BART Board of Directors voted to award a contract to build the Connector. The company they choose had the lowest bid (although the low bid did not come in under projections, as BART had repeatedly assured everyone all the bids would), and also the slowest technology. The cable driven system will actually run slower than the existing AirBART bus.

Which brings us pretty much to where we are today. The FTA, after conducting their Title VI compliance review, has now informed BART (PDF) that they have not complied with Title VI requirements with respect to the Airport Connector, and that before they can recieve any Federal funds for the project, they must complete a study that addresses the following:

  • analyze whether the Oakland Airport Connectors benefits and associated service impacts will have a discriminatory impact

  • A policy for what constitutes a “major service change”

  • the impacts of the major service change according to a specified procedure, including route changes and span of service

  • an analysis of what alternative modes of transit are available for people affected by the service expansion and reductions, including the travel time and cost of the current route compared to the cost to the rider of the alternative

  • documented evidence of steps taken to seek out and consider the viewpoints of minority and low-income populations in the course of developing the policy on major service changes

After completing the analysis as outlined, BART must submit a plan to mitigate adverse impacts. All of this must be completed to the FTA’s satsifaction by March 5. When and if the FTA approves BART’s mitigation plan, they will not allow BART to have any of their money until the mitigation plan is completed. If, at any point in this process, BART misses even one of its deadlines (which, given BART’s history, is virtually guaranteed), they will no longer be eligible to recieve the $70 million in stimulus funds.

Now, there is a hard Federal deadline for the obligation of those stimulus funds. That deadline is the aforementioned March 5th. The FTA’s letter is very clear that they do not think it is likely that BART will be able to meet the deadline. BART, perpetually in denial, sent out a press release saying of course they can, and then made up a bunch of lies about how they had held all these public meetings and done so much outreach about the Airport Connector in minority communities. Of course, if the FTA reviews any of the tapes of all the public hearings held on the Airport Connector over the entirety of 2009, they will hear hours and hours and hours of testimony from the publi about how the Airport Connector’s fare is completely unaffordable and how horrible it is that bus lines in poor communities that people depend on the get to work and school are getting cut in order to fund this piece of blingfrastructure. So based on BART’s letter, I guess they’re just counting on the FTA to not do their homework? It seems like a bad bet to me.

Which brings us to Wednesday’s meeting. The MTC has two choices. First, to reassign the $70 million in stimulus funding away from the Airport Connector and into system preservation for all Bay Area transit agencies (including BART). This influx of cash would go a long way to preventing or delaying the service cuts planned by almost all local transit agencies, including Muni and AC Transit. The other choice is to keep the funds assigned to the Airport Connector and cross our fingers that BART will be able to make its March 5th deadline (and not screw anything up afterwards either). If the MTC keeps the funds with BART, and BART makes any mistakes, the entire $70 million will leave the Bay Area permanently.

Even if you ignore the fact that the redirection of the $70 million to system preservation among local agencies will save more jobs than the entire OAC project will create, this decision should be a no brainer. The risk of just throwing away $70 million in stimulus funds is too high. First, it makes the MTC look like incompetent morons, and undoubtedly will render us ill poised to recieve competitive grants in the future. Second, the impacts of losing the money are just too devastating to justify.

And this is where you come in. You can help prevent this disaster. If you happen to have Wednesday morning free, you can come down to the MTC meeting and tell the Commission that you want them to redirect the funds. But more importantly, you can send an e-mail to the Commission right now, urging them to do the right thing, and not gamble $70 million of regional money on the fast action of a historically slow, dishonest, and unresponsive agency.

Transform has set up a simple form you can use to contact the MTC about this issue. PLEASE GO FILL IT OUT! The MTC needs to hear that the public is not supportive of this gamble.

6 thoughts on “Please tell the MTC not to throw away $70 million in stimulus funds!

  1. Pamela Drake

    Slower than the airport bus?? Wowser, what a great way to what, uh, subsidize the airlines that still land in Oakland, calm the nerves of Walnut Creek denizens, or provide short-term versus long-term jobs. If all those reasons don’t suffice, I’m going just because you invented the word (did you?) blingfrastructure. See y’all there!

  2. Naomi Schiff

    Excellent post, V! I hope people will consider linking to the above post for acquaintances who may want background or might be motivated to show up Wednesday.

  3. Jim T

    Oh man…way to get my blood boiling on monday morning! Email sent. Hope that everyone who reads this post does the same. Please.

  4. Karen Smulevitz

    V, you nailed the salient points. This opportunity is a late Christmas gift to unwrap in front of the MTC. Let’s hope their minds are open and not snowed by the BART grinches who will be there with bells on. May logic prevail!

  5. Anon

    Also, it’s worth noting that FTA’s Deputy Administrator came from MTC last summer, and directed policy there (and before that, managed MTC’s federal, state, and regional funding). I’m quite sure she’s intimately familiar with what’s happening on the ground in Oakland and within BART and MTC, and savvy about the politics involved. I imagine that FTA is also well aware that six weeks simply isn’t enough time for BART to conduct the outreach and studies necessary to comply with Title VI. Like Karen said….Christmas in January!

  6. DD

    I am disappointed with (though not surprised by) today’s MTC vote to give BART more time to fix things. Staff gave the Commissioners a way to procrastinate, and they took it.

    Please note that BART does not have to have the analysis done by March 5th, they just have to have an action plan acceptable to FTA.

    However, the risk is still high: if FTA accepts the action plan, and BART then fails to deliver, then the money disappears forever.

    There is a special MTC meeting on Feb 17th to review the action plan and decide what to do. It is our last chance to weigh in on this matter.