Last week I attended the BART Board meeting to weigh in on their brilliant plan to fully finance the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) through borrowing up to $150 million. The meeting was frustrating at times (and incredibly long), but in the end, Director Bob Franklin negotiated a compromise to bring the loan resolution back in two weeks, after they could get further information from staff. Though this win is temporary, it’s incredibly important because it gives advocates two more weeks to share our ideas with BART directors and to organize our community to call for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternative.
Most of the more than two hour discussion on the OAC consisted of BART directors, staff, union members, and business interests talking about how great this project was and patting themselves on the back for finally getting the funding in place for this project that has been in the works for two decades. They also repeatedly called this a “legacy project”, just what Obama was thinking of when creating the stimulus bill.
But I’m not going to relive those moments here – they were just too maddening. Instead, I wanted to share the real highlights of the meeting, the speeches that kept me from exploding and rekindled my hope for sensible transit.
Though transit advocates, including me, only learned about this hearing two days ahead of time, eleven of us spoke out against the OAC and in favor of a cheaper alternative, like BRT. Every one of the advocates was compelling, but Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm, was especially convincing. Cohen presented the possibility of how BART could use existing committed funds to build a BRT airport connector and could use some of these funds for operating costs down the road. Based on his calculations, this would allow the BRT connector to be free, while the current OAC would cost $6 each way!
My favorite part of the meeting came after the public speakers weighed in, when Director Tom Radulovich of San Francisco, my new transit hero, spoke up. He was incredible! He asked all of the important questions and echoed the concerns of transit advocates.
Radulovich grilled staff about the wisdom of borrowing $150 million for this project, since that would take away borrowing capacity for other priorities, like replacing rail cars. He also questioned their ridership estimates (as I have), saying they clearly are not conservative, especially since they do not estimate any ridership drop once high speed rail is in service.
Radulovich was very concerned that BRT had not been explored recently, even though it seemed like a good fit. He told a story that I have told so many times about BRT. Radulovich, like me, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where no one rode the bus (or any transit) unless they absolutely had to. But then the BRT Orange Line was built, and they met their 2020 ridership projections in just a couple of years. That success sold Radulovich on the BRT concept. As I often argue, if BRT will pull LA drivers out of their cars, it can do the same in the East Bay.
The biggest complaint from Radulovich was about the proposed fair for the rail OAC. He argued that the $6 fare would be more expensive than traveling to SFO and would be unfair to airport workers. Though some of his colleagues have argued that those who can’t afford it could just ride the bus, he said that it wasn’t right to have a two tiered system. Besides the social justice aspects, the two tiered system would negate any environmental impacts since the buses would still have to run.
At the end of his speech, Radulovich presented a perfect analogy. He said that in a house, you fix the foundation before adding a master suite or a jacuzzi. He then retracted that and said the BART system was closer to being a house on fire. Can you imagine upgrading a house as it burned to the ground? That’s basically what the BART Board would be doing if they borrow $150 million and allow the OAC project to move forward as is.
Several of Radulovich’s colleagues echoed his concerns but ultimately almost all of them sounded like they would vote to take out the loan. Luckily, Director Franklin saved the issue by proposing to delay the vote on the loan until the next meetin, and all the directors voted for this, except for Carol Ward-Allen, who abstained.
BART will be considering this issue again on Thursday, May 14th. I have no delusions that it will be easy to convince the directors that the right move is to scrap the current proposal in favor of a much cheaper and more effective BRT project. After all, we’re going up against BART staff, construction unions, business interests, and Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid. But BRT would be the right move – for Oakland, for BART, and for the greater Bay Area – and transit advocates are going to do our best to convince the directors of that.
Check back later this week for more info and for ways to get involved.