Transit Advocates Rejoice as $70M Shunted From Airport Connector to Muni, BART, Others

Subway party in toronto.jpg
Celebrate good times -- BART and Muni won the lottery!
Public transit advocates are all but dancing in the aisles of public transit following a ruling that yanked $70 million in federal funding away from the controversial Oakland Airport Connector and led to moribund local transit agencies being showered with manna from Washington. Transit activists SF Weekly spoke with portrayed the Friday decision by the Federal Transportation Authority to revoke funding to the much-maligned connector as the governmental equivalent of a double word score: Not only are starving local agencies receiving millions in much-needed funds, the airport connector -- decried by many as an exorbitant farce -- may have been dealt a fatal blow.

"We are thrilled," said Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm. "The truth is, this was going to be an enormous boondoggle. First off, it would have cost nearly half a billion in taxpayer money. And also, because it was going to be so slow and because it was going to drop you off in the parking lot and you'd have a long walk, we thought it'd have very low ridership."

Added Supervisor Chris Daly, a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, "In terms of Muni, basically getting the same amount of money they needed in this round of cuts, that helps. That helps a lot."

Because of the looming possibility that the feds would rescind stimulus dollars for the Oakland Airport Connector, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission last month set up a contingency plan in which that $70 million  would instead go to local transit agencies. Since the feds followed through on their threat, Muni will now benefit to the tune of $17.5 million; BART will receive $17 million; and AC Transit -- an agency Daly describes as "on life-support" -- picks up $6.7 million.



The possibility of receiving federal stimulus dollars in 2009 revived the long-planned but dormant airport connector project; despite the fact that its price tag had quadrupled while its anticipated ridership dropped by two-thirds, every BART commissioner but Tom Radulovich last year approved the plan.

Civil rights groups, however, claimed BART had not properly undertaken 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, and filed suit. Last month, Federal Transportation Authority chairman Peter Rogoff agreed. In a tersely worded letter, he informed BART that it would have to scramble to remedy this situation -- and it stood a "considerable risk" of losing the $70 million in federal funds. That loss came to pass on Friday. What's more, BART also may lose out on a $25 million grant and $80 million low-interest government loan for the project.

When asked, point blank, if this doomed the connector project, BART spokesman Jim Allision would not answer yes or no but "it's complicated." He referred SF Weekly to watch this Friday press conference given by BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger. She, too, refuses to answer the question yes or no -- but does say this:

  • "It was the availability of the $70 million in stimulus funding in the winter of 2009 that really made pursuit and delivery of this project a possibility. The loss of $70 million on a $490 million project is a substantial gap. Without a solution to close that funding gap, the project cannot go forward."
  • "I don't think a contractor will be very comfortable accepting a contract from me ... [if I say] 'I don't know where $70 million is coming from, but don't worry. I'll find it.'"
  • When asked if there were any alternative sources where that kind of money could be found, Dugger replied "I am not optimistic."
"She came as close to saying the project is dead as she could without saying it's dead," summed up John Knox White of TransForm. Yet White -- and Cohen and Daly -- were not willing to declare the connector "dead" but only "mostly dead.

"Sometimes money just gets pulled out of a hat," said White. "That's what happened with these stimulus funds in the first place." Added Daly, "I don't know if it is dead. But it is certainly stalled."

Cohen, meanwhile, held out hope that his pet plan -- an airport connector bus service that would cost a fraction the price of the proposed connector -- will now gain traction. Such a service, however, wouldn't satisfy the needs of politicians -- like the politicians who mostly make up the MTC -- to point at a massive, expensive capital project and say "Look what I got built!"

BART "is going to need to do a very serious analysis, and that may include having to compare [the connector] to a rapid bus system. What [FTA Director Peter] Rogoff said is that their corrective action plan did not include that analysis," said Cohen. "My guess is, ultimately, BART will have to include it, and they know they simply can't withstand the scrutiny. This project can't withstand any objective scrutiny by anybody."

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