BART’s brilliant plan for financing the Oakland Airport Connector

22 Apr

UPDATE: Read my post-meeting report here to find out what happened.

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.

21 Responses to “BART’s brilliant plan for financing the Oakland Airport Connector”

  1. V Smoothe April 22, 2009 at 8:22 am #

    It’s also worth noting that in BART’s multi-year effort to fund this project as a public-private partnership, none of the private operators they worked with believed that the ridership, even at $5/ride, would be sufficient to make the project pencil out financially. One wonders why BART thinks they know better.

  2. dto510 April 22, 2009 at 11:09 am #

    I guess I won’t be live-twittering the BART meeting tomorrow, since BART is banning mobile devices from their boardroom!

    • Becks April 22, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

      That’s awful! Does that mean that BART directors also can’t use their cell phones? I doubt it.

      • dto510 April 22, 2009 at 1:47 pm #

        No, the rules of procedure are only for the public. Board members won’t be searched, either. No mobile devices, no signs, no standing. Check it out, it’s truly draconian!

  3. Mike April 22, 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Very thoughtful post.

    A couple of underlying problems are the obsolescence of airports, and especially current (essentially 25 years outdated) airport planning, in light of a growing interest in reducing greenhouse gases and improving energy efficiency. And the ongoing destructive competition for funding among all transportation agencies in the region.

    If we are ever going to have an efficient transportation system, we need all agencies in the region to be under the control of a single regional transportation administration. That’s how they do it in Europe and in Canada and that’s why they solve problems that we can only make worse.

    • Andy K April 23, 2009 at 6:17 am #

      We are under the MTC – they seem most interested in promoting $$$$$ projects that benefit….? Hard to say.

  4. motoproponent April 22, 2009 at 2:13 pm #

    Where can I find out more of the BRT? I’ve read about the connector but there has been no publicity (besides your literary craftsmanship, Bravo Becks) about alternatives. Is the BRT a real alternative or just conjecture that will be written off as the ranting of some random Oakland Blogger/Twitterer. And as a frequent user of the AirBart I welcome something better.

    • Becks April 22, 2009 at 2:21 pm #

      Good question. There used to be some really good and fairly detailed info on TransForm’s site about a BRT alternative, but it seems to have been taken down.

      For now, I guess I’ll just ask you to trust me that others are advocating for this. Both TransForm and Genesis advocated for it at the MTC meeting in February. And since then I have talked to a couple of elected officials about the BRT option. I think it’s a very viable idea and others do too. Now we just need to make BART and MTC see that.

      I’ll try in the next month to lay out some more details of what a BRT connector would look like and how much it might cost.

  5. bikerider April 22, 2009 at 8:32 pm #

    Your blog post missed the worst part: staff proposes DIVERSION OF FUNDS from the ongoing seismic retrofit project to pay for OAC.

    Go read the bond measure passed by voters to pay for seismic retrofit. Even John Yoo would have a hard time coming up with legal justification.

    • Andy K April 23, 2009 at 6:23 am #

      This sounds illegal. Would this not be a violation of the voter approved measure to fund the retrofit?

      • dto510 May 14, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

        The MTC is apparently empowered to decide the use of all transportation funds. It’s ironic that a Commission that is not representative (seats are allocated by county, not by population) has the sole power to change voter-approved taxes.

  6. Andy K April 23, 2009 at 6:22 am #

    This seems like the perfect place for a BRT. If the 1R was converted to a BRT, you could have a direct BRT line from all along that line to the Airport. The OAC will never be extended – it is not compatible with the existing infrastructure.

    If it cost $5 to ride the OAC, a BART trip to the Airport would not be cost effective when compared to airport shuttles – factoring in the convenience.

  7. Alan from Berkeley April 23, 2009 at 10:12 am #

    Good luck with the meeting — we’ll need it.

    Let’s not forget there’s an agency turf war also underlying this — BART is not about to give THEIR connector project to AC Transit, even though it would also be handing off the inevitable operating loss while improving service to the public.

    MUCH better to extend the might BART brand . . .

  8. Becks April 23, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Good news! 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. Thanks to everyone who attended.

  9. Mark from Oakland May 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    People trying to catch a plane want to get there fast. A bus with stops would defeat the main goal of the project, which is to get people to and from the Airport quickly, safely, and reliably. Having “several” stops would render your bus proposal slower than the current AirBART shuttle.

    • Becks May 13, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

      “Mark” – I published your comment, but I do want to let everyone know that Mark sent this comment from a IP address during work hours. Yeah, this is what we’re paying BART staff to do.

      • Aldous Huxley May 20, 2009 at 7:30 am #

        Huh? No affiliation with BART sorry to disappoint – sent over my air card. I am a product manager in software. I take BART – I don’t do busses. Maybe I am odd that way.

    • das88 May 13, 2009 at 4:14 pm #

      I’m pretty sure they also don’t want to pay $6

  10. dto510 May 13, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    Alameda County voters approved a tax to finance the Airport Connector with the explicit provision that there be one or more stops along the 3.2mi route, which serves hotels, a technology campus, a shopping center, other businesses, and a lot of developable land. BART’s investment in Oakland should not be exclusively to serve those using the airport; since the community is paying for the connector, the community deserves a benefit.

  11. Joanna May 14, 2009 at 9:00 am #

    I don’t mind stops along the way to the airport and I thought we’d have them either way – with a bus or the train option.

    I don’t even particularly mind the current busBart situation except that it doesn’t run early enough in the morning and the bus gets stuck in traffic. It seems to me that with the BRT idea, you could significantly avoid the traffic.

    So if it’s hands down cheaper (BRT) and money is short, why spend what you don’t have when there’s a viable alternative that is significantly cheaper?

    I guess if the economy were still booming then I might be for the BART option vs the BRT. But in this case it just doesn’t make sense.

    And I’m curious… my perception is that I’ve read so many articles saying that BART to SFO was not nearly as successful as they thought it would be – and they significantly reduced trains going that distance – then why are we wanting to do that here?

    As for the BART emps posting here or anywhere else… that’s ridiculous. Are you that afraid for job security??? If you are, then you need to think about this plan. BRT makes way more sense and that might mean more money for emps and not forced payroll reductions or layoffs because the money was spent so unwisely.

  12. Matt Young September 10, 2009 at 6:59 am #

    I am going to propose that RapidBART take the meridian strip of Hegenberger Road, and possibly one additional lane for dedicated BRT. I would include the best of breed technology such as computer vision based detection of buses and traffic, automatic lane guidance, and central traffic management along the dedicated route.

    Automatic lane guidance should get a BRT system an additional lane by narrowing the corridor. Central traffic control allows bi-directional travel by all BRT on all dedicated lanes, with turnouts for passing. Consider this research from the Mineta Research Institute. Here the authors discuss a single dedicated lane BRT system in which left turn lanes are taken from traffic temporarily so that one BRT may idle and allow an opposing BRT to pass. This scheme allows two way BRT traffic on a single lane taken from the street meridian. The concept requires more sophisticated traffic software than a simple Bus Priority Signaling system. However, the more sophisticated traffic control allows BRT to effectively use two lanes, one lane or even three in various configurations with directional flow being altered by control.

    Central traffic control in turn requires distributed collection of traffic conditions, including location of automobiles as well as buses. Hence the need for computer vision based traffic detection, as I always talk about. Computer analysis of the traffic scene will be the norm starting in the next year or so, and computer detection of obstructing vehicles and pedestrians will be the norm for all semi-automated BRT. All semi-automated BRT will have pedestrian detect and avoidance. Computer vision requires aggregation of both stationary and mobile cameras. Each camera scene analyzed to detect traffic units and create a uniform model of current vehicles, buses and pedestrians, available to all BRT systems.

    And a note on BRT configurations. BRT with lane assist will generally be two, three and even high multi-car configurations. They will use electric control and be managed from either end, so they are bidirectional. Being bidirectional greatly simplifies the construction of ed terminals, and with no additional cost allow shorten local routes within the automated traffic corridor. I believe bi-directional BRT configurations will be the norm within a year or two.

    The system I describe requires a bus manager, not a driver. The driver is not nearly able to take digital commands and execute them, and certainly the automatic lane guidance is far more accurate than the human driver can handle. But BRT speeds of up to 70 MPH and higher are indeed possible on a semi-automated BRT.

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