BART’s brilliant plan for financing the Oakland Airport Connector

 (Cross posted at Living in the O.)

I had a fun, lighthearted post planned for today, but thanks to BART, that will have to wait another day. Because shockingly, BART has gone and pissed me off once again. You might remember my post in February about the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC). If not, I’ll refresh your memory. The OAC is an absurdly expensive project that was basically dead due to lack of funding, but was revived when stimulus funds became available. Even though more than 100 people spoke out against applying $70 million of stimulus funds to the OAC, the MTC voted nearly unanimously (except Tom Bates) to fund the OAC.

Transit advocates were understandably upset by this vote, since Bay Area transit agencies desperately need those funds. But we held out some hope that this terrible project still might die and be revived into a cheaper and more useful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. Why? Because even with the $70 million, BART was still about $100 million short in financing the project, and the MTC made it very clear that they needed to secure the rest of the funding by this June to be eligible for stimulus funds.

Yesterday, I found out what their financing plan is. No, they haven’t found some secret pot of federal or state money. No, they haven’t decided to nix Bart to San Jose and use the savings on the OAC. Their brilliant plan is to take out a loan of up to $150 million.

Yes, you read that right. While transit agencies across the nation, including BART, are raising fares and cutting service, BART is planning to take out a large loan to fund a project that could be completed for the third of the price if converted to BRT. BART staff is of course claiming that ridership on the OAC will be high enough to cover all debt service, but it’s hard for me to believe that, since historically BART’s ridership projections have been wildly high.

Which brings me to another point that I don’t think I covered well enough in the last post on this subject. One of the reasons that I don’t think BART can meet its ridership projections for the OAC is because this rail project would only have two stops – Coliseum BART and the Oakland Airport. There will be no stops in between, and since the project is so expensive, I’m guessing there will be no chance for future expansion past the Coliseum BART.

If instead, we built a state of the art BRT system – complete with gorgeous buses with low floors and attractive stations – there could be several stops between BART and the aiport. Not only that, but since BRT is so much cheaper, we could use some of the savings to expand the BRT project beyond BART to the 1/1R line, which will ultimately be a BRT line. It could even be expanded further, to Eastmont Mall, which is already a transit hub. This would mean that a BRT airport connector would serve East Oakland residents, in addition to serving air travelers. And with an ultimate savings that could be redistributed among Bay Area transit agencies to halt fair raises and/or service cuts.

I’ll be going to the BART Board meeting tomorrow morning to tell them all of this. If you’d like to join me, the meeting is at 9:00am at the Kaiser Center 20th Street Mall – Third Floor, 344 – 20th Street in Oakland.

14 thoughts on “BART’s brilliant plan for financing the Oakland Airport Connector”

  1. I’d like BRT (don’t mind the current situation, too much). And low floors would be nice. But I’d prefer a straight shot to the airport.

  2. I have no strong opinions about the Oakland Airport Connector, and have written elsewhere of my own skepticism of that project.

    But I am concerned about some of the thinking behind this. First, is it right to sacrifice long-term infrastructure investment to help cover short-term operating expenses? To support redirection of BART to OAK funds to operating expenses I’d need to have some assurance that the project will be funded at some time in the near future, and that there will be a long-term solution to the issue of funding local mass transit.

    OC Progressive has shown why sales taxes aren’t a reliable source for funding government, and many local transit agencies are indeed funded by sales taxes. I believe the solution is a regional gas tax that SF Bay Area voters can approve for themselves without having to worry about conservative votes in the Central Valley or Orange County.

    Second, is Bus Rapid Transit really a better alternative here? As far as I can tell BRT along this corridor and the BART to OAK connector are two totally separate kinds of projects. Eliminating the connector means you sacrifice some kind of riders to serve a very different population. And perhaps that’s the right thing to do, it wouldn’t take much to convince me of this.

    I tend to instinctively react against the idea that BRT is an acceptable substitute for a true passenger rail system. The up-front costs may be cheaper, but ridership is usually lower and the long-term costs are often higher. Less bang for more bucks.

    But, as I said, it may be the case that an Airport Connector isn’t the best use of money on this corridor, and that BRT would actually serve more people, not less, than the connector.

    In that case I think the argument here should be that BART to OAK isn’t a worthwhile project at all, and shouldn’t be funded, period. I don’t think it’s helpful to pit good long-term infrastructure against good short-term operating costs. We must find ways to refuse to play that game.

    As an aside, I’m not convinced BART’s ridership projections are always wildly off – that seems to have been true of the SFO extension, but the Dublin/Pleasanton extension seems to have been a success, so much so that they’re building a second station out there at West Dublin.

    In any case, I’m hesitant to use ridership as an argument against mass transit – we need to be building for the long-term and if that means we don’t reach ridership projections immediately, that’s OK – it may take several years to reach the projected number, but it is usually reached and then exceeded.

  3. California would be far better served by a backfill of the decreasing quarter cent sales tax that subsidizes local transit than any new project.

    Why would we want to fund new “gorgeous buses with low floors and attractive stations” when we are decimating our existing bus routes?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m a zealous supporter of expanding non-auto options at every level, walking, biking, local, regional and long-distance, and understand the importance of things like car-share and advanced transit options. A year ago I was a strong supporter of advanced transit systems.

    Right now, save the existing buses!

  4. The BART Board voted to hold off on voting on the loan until the next meeting, in two weeks. I’ll have a full post up tonight or tomorrow morning about the meeting.

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