In the debate about how best to proceed on the Oakland Airport Connector, I wanted to take this opportunity to share why I think it is so important to make sound choices. My goal is to result in a project that is better for economic growth and job creation, better for Oakland, better for BART, the Airport, the region’s transit, and the public.
The proposed $550 million project currently on the table, using “AGT” technology (an automated, elevated guideway) fails to provide any of the benefits originally promised, and also threatens devastating cuts in jobs, local transit service, and other vital public projects because it will be funded by taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from other essential services.
To re-cap the history, the Airport Connector project approved in 2001 was for a Connector which would cost $130 million in taxpayer dollars, be “flexible” and “seamless” and provide service for two intermediate stops for economic growth on the Hegenberger corridor, and take 7 minutes to travel. BART’s current proposal has NONE of these features. Instead, it will cost $6 each way for passengers to ride (making it the world’s most expensive connector), cost $550 million in taxpayer dollars, take 18 minutes to travel, and without the “seamless” connection, will require passengers to go upstairs, across a long walkway and through another payment system, and then also downstairs, outside, and across numerous lanes of traffic to complete the trip. It will NOT be flexible to adapt to future conditions, having no capacity to add or move stops/stations to accommodate economic growth, and therefore, no longer includes the potential for a more vibrant future for the Hegenberger Corridor – which is especially important because the capacity to support economic growth on the corridor was given as the prime reason for Oakland’s support for the proposal back in 2001. The projected ridership has plummeted, from 13,540 when originally approved, down to 4,000 in revised projections.
NO. This is one of the most troubling pieces of mis-information being spread about the proposed OAC by project supporters. Advocates of the more expensive system claim this project has been awarded stimulus funds by the Obama administration, and have told people that the money will just go away if we don’t use it in this way. This is entirely untrue. The Obama Administration did NOT award stimulus funds to this project. The Bay Area was given certain stimulus funds through MTC, and BART is lobbied MTC to give them $70 million of these funds to use for the OAC. If the money is not used for the OAC, it will go to save local transit service from deep cuts, for “transit system preservation and maintenance.” Under NO circumstances will the money leave our region. (Actually, the only way the money WILL leave our region is if we give it to BART to build the OAC, and then they give it to an out-of-State company, to purchase “automated guideway” equipment). If this money were not given to the OAC, it would be used to save transit service and transit jobs in our region. Similarly, the $89 million in funding from ACTIA, and the $109 million in funding from RM2 and more are all locally-controlled funds, which would stay local if not used for the more-expensive OAC, and would provide immensely more jobs and transit service if used in a more effective way. Using the funds more effectively would mean significantly less cuts and layoffs at AC Transit and other transit operators, INCLUDING BART. Yes, that’s right, BART would also get some of this money for their own “transit system preservation and maintenance” and thus, would be able to avoid numerous layoffs and the deep cuts now being implemented due to BART’s budget deficit and State funding cuts. For more on BART’s cuts, which are taking place starting today, see this article.
MTC still has $70 million in stimulus funds left to allocate – funds which are eligible for “transit system preservation.” That money has been held aside to give BART a chance to get the money for the OAC, if they come up with the rest of the money for the project. However, using this money for the OAC, instead of using it to save transit service, is resulting in significant loss of jobs and transit service. Sadly, MTC and others were told that Oakland endorses giving the money to the OAC – even though the Oakland City Council has NEVER voted on this question. Now that the cuts caused by this choice are actually happening, many constituents are asking HOW CAN WE STOP THESE AWFUL LOCAL TRANSIT CUTS? We can help reduce transit cuts – we can tell MTC and others– Oakland DOES NOT ENDORSE giving this money to the OAC, instead of using it for transit preservation!
BART’s proposal will result in numerous Oakland residents losing their jobs directly (in layoffs of AC Transit drivers, BART operators, mechanics, etc), and then more local economic harm as the transit cuts hurt local access to jobs and services. It is a bad decision for MTC to make, both from a jobs perspective and a transit perspective, and it is WRONG for this to be done in our name.
Since the OAC is the least job-producing option, moving money away from transit preservation to give it to the OAC will result in at least five jobs lost for each one that would be provided. Clearly, BART has recognized that jobs are important to the public, as BART staff recently sent out an email urging people to support the OAC by quoting fake inflated job numbers (PDF).
It is embarrassing to be told that Oakland’s best option is to spend the money on a single project that would be the least effective and most-expensive to ride airport connector in the world, while providing the fewest jobs and no support for economic growth. I know we can do so much better.
We can build a rapid, reliable, sustainable airport connector – attract more passengers, and serve key destinations to support the economic revitalization of the area. This can be done for a total cost of under $60 million.
We can save money, and use it to fund additional vital priorities, (including building other important local projects) which will create more jobs. Instead of charging passengers a prohibitive $12 round-trip to ride to the connector as proposed, we could provide service at much lower cost, which would attract more riders.
Instead of using old, heavy, expensive 1960’s-era technology, we can use new systems that are now in wide use throughout the world. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), including traffic signal prioritization and queue-jump lanes, which allow the transit vehicle to escape traffic congestion, is being used successfully in numerous locations and will provide faster service at a fraction the cost. The BRT technology will have the ability to be flexible and seamless, delivering passengers directly to their airport terminal entrances (rather than across multiple lanes of traffic into the parking lot), and will be able to accommodate not only today’s conditions on the Hegenberger Corridor, but also will be able to attract and serve future economic growth, with great ease to add or move stations.
Photo of BART’s proposed $550 million AGT Connector
Examples of Rapid, Cost-effective BRT Connector
There are transit systems in use across the world today, which combine the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of buses, with the reliability and amenities usually associated with rail. In Europe, they call these systems “trams with tires.” For one example, these are photos of the airport connector serving Eindhoven Airport in the Netherlands. The Eindhoven Airport Connector uses magnetic guidance for a smooth ride, signal timing systems for speed and reliability, and more. These systems can be designed with sustainable energy systems, including options of zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell1, and hybrid-electric models. This is the cutting edge of modern transit technology, not the grid-power-driven slow system BART proposes to use.
BRT Connector arriving at Eindhoven Airport – direct access to Terminal entrance
The benefits of the BRT connector are not only cost-effectiveness, direct access, flexibility, affordability, green technology AND saving millions of dollars in transit service, but also allowing additional funds to be used to build other vital projects. The BRT connector would provide not only many more transit jobs, it would also provide thousands more construction jobs, and other post construction (retail, hotel) jobs, since funds would be available for other construction projects, potentially including:
Part of the funding for the “AGT” Connector will come from the Airport’s facilities funds. This means tens of millions of dollars being cut from other airport construction and renovation projects. By contrast, the BRT connector would leave those funds intact, allowing the Airport to go ahead with the planned Terminal 1 Renovation project (which will have to be put on hold to fund BART’s AGT proposal). By freeing up these funds for the Airport’s renovation work, we will create more jobs, and provide an airport that is more appealing to attract more passengers and airlines.
We can finally fund the Coliseum BART Transit Oriented Development Project. For years, there has been a strong desire, with no known opposition, to develop a significant new project at and around the Coliseum BART station, both to make the station itself more attractive and user-friendly, and to build a significant new transit village which would provide shops, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, and more. (Initial designs and drawings have already been prepared, but the project has not moved forward due to lack of funds. Transit villages tend to be built with a combination of public and private funds, and having $25 million in public infrastructure funding would make it possible to put together a full funding package, including private investment, to build this major new project). This is one of the most important economic development projects of our time, as it would provide economic development in East Oakland, thousands of jobs both in construction and in long-term positions, and a better experience for the tens of thousands of people who come to games and events at the Coliseum/Arena, providing millions in tax revenue for Oakland. The amount of money needed to launch this project would be available from the hundreds of millions saved. In fact, the Fruitvale Transit Village was able to be launched years ago because of initial public funding through ACTIA – and ACTIA would be able to use some of the money saved from the BRT Connector to provide this needed funding for the Coliseum BART Transit Village.
Other “RM2” projects. Regional Measure 2 is the bridge toll charge which funds transit in the “bridge corridors.” By saving some of the $109 million in RM2 funds now proposed for the Connector, we can fund additional transit service and operations in our region, including express bus, BART, ferries, and more. (For example, if we use $40 million of this for the BRT connector, this would leave $69 million in additional transit service, which if used for transit operations, would provide about 500 direct jobs and provide tens of thousands of people with transit service).
Seismic Retrofit Funds. BART plans to move tens of millions of dollars out of their seismic retrofit funds to pay for the AGT Connector. BART staff claims that they believe that the seismic retrofit project, scheduled to be completed in 2013, will come in “under budget” and therefore, they won’t need this money for seismic retrofit. However, since the project won’t be completed for four more years, we have no way of being sure this money won’t be needed for the seismic retrofit project, AND, even with the planned project, BART will NOT be bringing all of its system to the higher level of seismic preparedness. Therefore, if these funds are taken away from seismic retrofit, we will surely be asked in the future to give BART more money, from some other source, for this purpose. Or the BART system will be less seismically safe than it could be. Our safety in an earthquake and the ability of our vital transit system to withstand an earthquake are vital public goals which should not be put at risk to fund the more expensive connector!
Attract economic development on the Hegenberger Corridor. Even the strongest advocates of BART’s proposal have spoken out about the importance of a project that can attract and serve new economic development on the Hegenberger Corridor, such as being able to provide a direct link from the Airport to planned Hotel Complex Development. In fact, in the Port’s own official documents about the planned Hotel, they explicitly mention the future Connector, with stops to serve the hotel. But the system BART is proposing lacks this ability, and therefore, will fail in this vital economic development goal. By choosing instead a BRT connector, with the ability to serve this development, we will be able to attract more jobs and a stronger local economy.
Numerous psychological studies have documented the fact that humans have a troubling tendency to assume that the higher-priced option must be of better quality when choosing between two products – even when there is no evidence this is true. In fact, evaluators put different price tags on the same orange juice, and test subjects reported that the one with the higher price tag tasted better. The same psychological problem is undermining a rational discussion about the Oakland Airport Connector. The reason we should prefer the more flexible BRT technology over BART”s proposed AGT “Elevated guideway” proposal is because BRT is actually much better in terms of the service we need for this important and growing corridor. Even if the BRT technology didn’t save hundreds of millions of dollars, it would still be the better choice – yet many find it hard to believe that a technology that costs ten times as much might actually not be any more desirable. Consider a hypothetical – if BART proposed to cover their trains with an outer wall of gold, this would make them cost hundreds of millions of dollars more – and, because gold is heavy, doing this would also make BART slower. So, even though gold-covered BART trains would be MUCH MORE expensive, they would NOT be better, in any way. Similarly, making the Airport Connector cost hundreds of millions of dollars extra, in order to use an elevated guideway which is actually SLOWER, and will dump riders out at an elevated platform in the Airport parking lot, and force them to go downstairs, outside, and across multiple lanes of traffic before entering the airport, is NOT better. When we look at actual goals, from economic development to “seamlessness” to speed, BART’s AGT proposal is actually worse than the BRT proposal. All while wasting money and killing other projects by taking the funding. We need to not be dazzled by the high price tag into thinking that is proof something is better. And, especially to survive and thrive in these economic times, we need to make sure our uses of public funds are cost-effective and viable, and not be seduced by wasteful proposals.
BART staff claims to have an analysis which shows their proposed AGT Connector is better than the BRT Connector, but an honest comparison was NEVER done. BART claimed to have hired consultants to evaluate the different alternatives, and claims that they concluded that the more cost-effective BRT alternative would not work, and therefore, we must choose BART’s “AGT” proposal. However, we have now learned that a fair evaluation was NOT done. Instead, in emails from BART staff to their consultants, in which they were hired to do this alleged “evaluation,” BART staff, rather than asking for an honest comparison, explicitly asked for a biased report.
Email from BART staff to consultants, Re: BRT Alternative:
Any information you can provide to put holes in this would be appreciated – we have some worried Board members and I need to easily discredit this ‘paper.’
So, BART staff knew that even their own Board was worried about the AGT proposal (which will increase BART’s budget deficit by at least $150 million), and BART staff asked consultants not only to help them lie to the public, but even to their own Board, about having done a fair evaluation when in fact they hired the evaluators with specific instructions to produce a biased report!
The original EIR in 2002 also avoided a fair evaluation, by using a “model” in which the AGT version was described as being much faster than has turned out to be the case, and included two intermediate stops, but the BRT version had NO such stops. Then, BART argued that this difference was the reason people should endorse the AGT version. Not only has this “benefit” now been removed from the AGT version, but also, the original claim by BART, that the BRT version could not have intermediate stops, was entirely fabricated. BRT has the ability to include intermediate stops, despite BART’s odd claims to the contrary, and now, the AGT version does NOT have them.
So, in conclusion, I am seeking not only to defend fiscal responsibility, jobs, economic growth, and to provide a better connector, but also to defend basic principles of honesty and fairness in decision-making about use of public funds. If someone really believes their proposal is the better one, they should be able to support it using truthful information and welcome an honest comparison.
We will be discussing these issues at Oakland City Hall on Tuesday Morning, at the Public Works Committee, and I look forward to an honest conversation, and to working together to strengthen our area’s transit and our area’s economy. Please attend the meeting, or if you cannot attend, you can get involved online here.
1 I suspect BART will claim that Hydrogen Fuel Cell is “impossible” – but this next generation green energy technology is efficient and in successful use within our region already. Hydrogen Fuel-Cell transit vehicles are available, and, due to the hundreds of millions of dollars available for this project, it is possible to use Hydrogen Fuel-Cell vehicles and save millions, since the entire BRT system, even with Hydrogen Fuel-Cell vehicles, can be developed for around $60 million (as compared to $550 million for the AGT system). Then, they might point out that there are only a couple-dozen hydrogen fueling stations on the planet, and of these, only about 5 stations on earth have the industrial-size capacity to handle transit vehicles. Luckily, one of these is located at right here in Oakland, less than 2 blocks from the Coliseum BART station! So we could have not only a cheaper connector, but also one using cutting-edge green energy.
Rebecca Kaplan is the At-large Councilmember for the City of Oakland.