Civil Rights, Transit Advocates Urge BART to Abandon Half-Billion Dollar Airport Connector

Categories: Public Transit


The community groups whose advocacy led to the federal government threatening to withhold $70 million from a planned BART connector to Oakland Airport moments ago made their case that the project is a costly boondoggle that does nothing for the poor and minority communities living near the airport.

"To take money out of stimulus funds and use it to help those who can afford airline tickets while taking money away from those who ride buses to schools, work, or the doctor -- it's an injustice that's quite obscene," said the Rev. Scott Denman during a conference call with the press. "It feels like lunch money is being stolen to buy dessert for the rich kid with a full stomach."

Earlier this month, the Federal Transportation Administration concurred with the complaints -- and legal filings -- of local advocates, informing BART and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission that they had failed to conduct an "equity evaluation" of how the proposed $492 million Oakland Airport Connector would impact the underprivileged minority communities residing between the Coliseum BART station and airport. Unless such an evaluation can be rapidly -- and satisfactorily -- undertaken by March 5, some $70 million in federal stimulus funds will be yanked from the project.

Of course, the transit advocates who called today's press conference would rather that equity study not be undertaken at all. They advocated for the MTC -- which meets tomorrow -- to fall back to a contingency plan and spread that $70 million in federal largess to its aching agencies such as BART, AC Transit, and Muni. The money it saves by not building the connector could be similarly reinvested. 

While it was civil rights complaints that led to the Federal Transportation Agency to yank its guarantee of stimulus funds, the complaints leveled against the airport connector sounded an awful lot like the longstanding charges that the project is an inefficient waste of money (prodigious amounts of money).

Guillermo Mayer, the staff attorney for Public Advocates, Inc. noted that the proposed connector would charge passengers -- and low-income airport workers -- double the $3 fee of the current bus system. Stuart Cohen of TransForm also touted a beefed-up bus system, which he said could be achieved for $60 million -- one-eighth the cost of the connector. Cohen claimed BART had spent "thousands and probably tens of thousands of dollars" in an attempt to discredit the idea of a cheaper bus alternative -- which he claimed would also be faster and more efficient than the 3.2 mile, elevated connector.

The elevated railway "Would cost almost $1 million for every new rider. That's the primary reason it's being rejected now," he said. "Under new criteria of environmental benefit and community benefit, it fails even more miserably. This project is a mere skeleton of what was first proposed. It's slow, makes no intermediate stops, and drops people off in the parking lot because they can't afford to go to the terminal."

When asked, point-blank, how these concerns were specifically a civil rights issue and not just an "expensive, poorly conceived waste of money" issue, the advocates essentially responded that poor minorities living near the airport are hurt the most, and this connector does nothing for them. Whatever the case, both the advocates and the federal government agree that BART didn't do its homework with regards to alleviating these concerns. That -- and not the fact the Oakland Airport Connector's price tag quadrupled while its estimated ridership dropped by two-thirds -- is what led the feds to clamp down.

Incidentally, Mayer notes the hefty surcharge on BART tickets to San Francisco International Airport charged to affluent tourists and blue-collar minority airport workers alike was also undertaken without conducting an "equity analysis." His organization has informed the Federal Transportation Administration, which is looking into the matter -- "and we hope to hear the results soon."

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