By now, I’m sure you have read plenty about the MTC’s decision last week to take $70 million of the $340 million in stimulus funding for transit received by the agency and allocate it to the Oakland Airport Connector.
I wrote about the proposal for the Oakbook two weeks ago, and Becks at Living in the O, John Knox White at Stop, Drop, and Roll, and Eric at Transbay Blog reminded you about it again before the meeting. If you missed all that, here’s the (somewhat) short version.
The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is a Bay Area agency responsible for regional transportation planning. Most State and Federal funding for transportation in the Bay Area (both roads and public transit) goes to the MTC, which then distributes it for regional road and highway projects and among transit agencies. They are also the responsible body for administering regional transportation funds, like those received from bridge tolls. The basic idea is that having a regional body do all this will ensure better coordination between agencies and greater efficiency of funds than would happen if everyone was acting independently.
The MTC is governed by a nineteen member board, composed of local elected officials. San Francisco County, Alameda County, Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County, and San Mateo County each get to representatives on the Commission – one member of that county’s Board of Supervisors, and one person to represent the cities in that county. For us, that means Alameda County Supervisor from Fremont Scott Haggerty representing Alameda County and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates representing the cities in Alameda County. Marin County, Solano County, Sonoma County, and Napa County each get one Commissioner to represent both the cities in the county and the county itself. The Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Conversation and Development Commission each get a representative, as does the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Department of Transportation, and the California Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency.
Got all that? Without getting too much into the chip I’ve got on my shoulder about the MTC, I’ll just note that our county representative is so far out that the interests of his District are much more aligned with Santa Clara County’s than most of Alameda County, and the ABAG representative is Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese. Santa Clara County is way over-represented and Oakland gets basically nothing. It’s not just me that thinks its unfair, either. The MTC is currently being sued over inequity in their distribution of public transit funds. The argument is basically that the MTC’s inequitable subsidies to local transit agencies violate Federal and State civil rights laws because they disproportionately subsidize agencies that serve affluent white customers while neglecting agencies like AC Transit which serves primarily transit-dependent people of color. This nifty little chart (PDF) illustrates the disparity. Bus advocates in Los Angeles won a similar case several years ago.
So the MTC was allocated by formula $343 million (PDF) for transit from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, usually referred to as the stimulus package. Local transit agencies and riders wanted the MTC to disburse all of that money to the agencies for system preservation. The combination of plummeting sales tax revenues and the gutting of transit funding by the State has left most of these agencies in dire straights, so the influx of stimulus cash is much needed. Instead, the MTC decided to give 79% of it to system operators, and reserve $70 million for the Oakland Airport Connector project.
So, this was a terrible decision. Bay Area transit agencies desperately need every penny they can get for system preservation, so they can maintain operations needed to get people to jobs (and also avoid putting people out of work). That angle has been pretty well covered, so I’m going to leave it at that. What is not getting enough attention is what a ginormous boondoggle the Airport Connector is.
BART has been wanting an improved connection between the Coliseum BART station and the Oakland Airport for years. They have decided that the best way to connect the airport to the BART station is to build an automated train in the sky. Partial funding for what was supposed to be a $130 million project was included in the expenditure plan for 2000′s Measure B reauthorization (that’s our half-cent sales tax for transportation). The BART Board certified the EIR for the project seven years ago. The plan back then was that the system would start operating in 2008.
Of course, sky trains are expensive, and even with significant public funding committed to the project from a variety of sources, BART decided in 2005 that they were not going to be able to finance the project without private assistance. In February 2006, the issued a Request for Qualifications seeking companies willing to enter into a public-private partnership that would build and operate the suddenly $388 million project. The got five responses, and ended up selecting three teams to respond to a Request for Proposals (RFP) to get the contract. The RFP was issued in May 2007, with an original due date of September 2007. The deadline was then extended to early 2008, with a goal that a contract would be awarded by summertime and service would begin in 2011. By the end of 2007, two of the three pre-qualified teams had dropped out of discussions, and that timeline started looking a little less feasible. Finally, last November, after five separate deadline extensions, the third and final team withdrew from bidding. BART said at the time that they would start looking for more cost efficient connection alternatives.
Of course, then the stimulus package came along. And despite Obama’s warning not to waste that money, the MTC decided to do exactly that and take $70 million from their stimulus award and allocate it to the airport connector. The project, as it stands now, is estimated to cost $529 million. Existing public funding (before the stimulus money) only amounts to $288 million (that represents a combination of funds from ACTIA (Measure B money), the Port of Oakland, the State Transportation Improvement Program, MTC bridge toll funds, and the Federal Transit Administration. The MTC plans to cover the shortfall with contributions from a bunch of different pots of money – savings from the Doolittle Flyover project ($30 million), toll revenue ($20 million), savings from the BART tube seismic retrofit ($50 million), and of course, $70 million from the stimulus package. If you’re doing the math in your head and thinking about now that it doesn’t seem to quite add up, you’re right. The existing public funding, plus all this additional public funding, plus the stimulus money still leaves the project $71 million short. The idea is that BART would find the rest of the cash, probably through an agreement with a private system operator.
The existing shuttle service between the Oakland Airport and the BART station is AirBART, a bus that operates in mixed traffic. AirBART’s reliability is okay. but nobody questions the need for a better connection. But a connection that costs $165 million per mile (assuming the cost doesn’t grow even more, which it obviously will) is insane. A reliable surface transportation service could be built using only part of the already allocated existing public funding, which would free up the rest of the money for other transportation improvements and would have the advantage of encouraging ancillary transit oriented development. All this was excellently summed up by TransForm Executive Director Stuart Cohen, in what was hands down the best public comment at the meeting:
Regarding the Oakland Airport Connector. When we were involved in Measure B and the negotiations for it and then the campaign to support it, that was a $130 million project. Go back to the ballot – $65 million from Measure B for it, we need 65 of matching funds. Today, that project is asking the region – money that is not yet used – $420 million just for the match. The match went from 65 to 420. Only a little bit of that is inflation.
This project is three miles long. This project is not guaranteed to be a huge success. I spent a lot of time in New York this summer, spent a lot on AirTran by JFK, not many people riding it.
What we are proposing is now that the congestion has been taken care of by the terminal – that was the reason the bus alternative looked terrible in 99 and 2000, to have a study of a rapid bus alternative that is 100% free to riders in perpetuity. And we believe that you could use the money that the Port is offering, and the RM2 money could be flexed to allow that, to fund that project. I think you’d have higher ridership, you’d have greater affordability, one of the goals we had a hard time meeting as part of this RTP. And with that higher ridership, you’d come in similar or better on greenhouse gas emissions.
We don’t need Star Trek to the airport, which, I’ll hard out a picture. Part of this $520 million, I’ll show you the picture of it, is to build Star Trek to the airport. It’s a unique technology, it needs a unique maintenance shop, and that’s why it’s such an expensive thing to build. Thank you.
Cohen’s voice of reason was preceded by the worst comment of the meeting, from our very own District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid:
My name is Larry Reid. I’m a member of the Oakland City Council. I’ve been on the City Council for 12 years. Prior to that, I was Chief of Staff to Mayor Elihu Harris for 6 years. So for 18 years, the City of Oakland has supported this project and even before then – the airport connector, which is in my Council district, that I’m asking this body to give consideration to approve the recommendation that is before you.
We’ve been working on this incredible transit village in my district. Where we have the Amtrak Capital Corridor train that comes into one of the most incredible jewels in the BART system, the Coliseum BART station. And this airport connector will allow people who will live around that BART station to travel back and forth to the most convenient airport in Northern California, helping to reduce congestion along that Hegenberger corridor, and allow people from around Alameda County, which voted and approved this measure, in Measure B, in the reauthorization it was approved by 81%. As a member of the Alameda County Congestion Management Authority, this has been a priority for the County, it’s been a priority for the City of Oakland, it’s been a priority for BART, it’s been a priority for the Port of Oakland.
And so I certainly hope that this body will approve the recommendation and allow us to have what San Francisco has – one of the most incredible extensions that move people to its airport. I wish Councilmember Dick Spees was here, who could give you the history of how Oakland took the back seat and didn’t raise an issue when the funding went towards the airport extension that San Francisco now enjoys. So I certainly hope that you would support the recommendation and thank you for allowing me to speak.
Normally, I like Larry Reid. He does, however, have an irritating tendency to behave in an incredibly (and inexplicably) short-sighted manner. This comment was infuriating. Larry Reid wants an improved transit connection to the airport. So does everyone else. He has also apparently forgotten that people living at the transit village will want to go places besides the airport. An elevated connection is not only a stupid waste of money, it’s also the worst approach to the problem for the Hegenberger corridor he’s so hell-bent on revitalizing. Surface transportation between the BART station and the Airport, like rapid bus (hell, even surface rail) would be dramatically cheaper than what BART wants to build, and it would also have the distinct advantage of not skipping over the entire street. A rapid surface transportation system could not only connect BART riders to the airport, it could also better connect them to jobs along the streets in between. Larry Reid, by advocating for giving stimulus money to BART for the Oakland Airport Connector instead of local agencies to maintain service, is not only screwing his constituents, but also acting against one of his own top priorities for his District. Infuriating!
After more than two hours of public comment, most of which was against the Airport Connector (the Commission also received 27 letters against the project, and only 2 in favor), the Commission voted nearly unanimously to allocate the funds to BART to build their sky train anyway. I was crushed. The only no vote was Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. Speakers in favor of funding the project argued that it was needed to create jobs. Of course, funding this project won’t create any jobs in the immediate future. If, and that’s a big if, BART can come up with the money to fill the funding gap by the end of June, they still don’t expect to award a contract until the end of the year. If they can’t find the money by June, the funds will be redirected back to local transit agencies.