Believe it or not, the final Oakland Airport Connector project is even worse than expected

9 Dec

UPDATE: Unsurprisingly, the BART Board voted earlier today 7-1 to approve the project.

Tomorrow, the BART Board of Directors will vote on approving the contract to begin construction of the Oakland Airport Connector. And believe it or not, the project has gotten even worse.

Remember at that late night City Council meeting in October when BART and its supporters went on and on about how we need to do this project now because the bidding environment is so competitive and we’d save so much money? BART had been lobbying the Council for weeks saying just that and reminding the Council how all of their projects were coming in way under budget. Of course, they couldn’t share exact numbers because the bids were still private, but there were rumors going around at the time that the bids were coming in significantly lower (someone even tossed around the number of 30% lower).

And this was an argument we just couldn’t fight because we thought they were right. Most infrastructure project bids in the Bay Area had been coming in much lower than expected. We of course countered that even if it was a $400 million project, it still wasn’t worth it, but we never argued that the bids would not be low.

Well, apparently we should have because now we know that the bids didn’t come in all that low. In fact, out of the three companies that made it through the process (one other dropped out), two of the three bids came in over budget and one came in just a bit under budget. The chart in the BART meeting packet obscures the total costs a bit (you have to look further for the total costs), but using their numbers, here are the estimated total bids (including funds BART has spent to date):

Flatiron / Parsons JV

$492 million

Walsh Construction Company

$571 million

Shimmick/Skanska/Herzog JV

$568.5 million

Does that look like huge savings to you?

So they obviously picked the cheapest bid, since it’s the only one they could choose and still come in under budget (or even at budget). The problem is that this company has by far the slowest technology. The even bigger problem is that the staff report doesn’t tell us exactly how slow (we know via research) and the detailed info from their bid won’t be made public until after the BART Board votes tomorrow. What we do know is that the RFP was changed this summer, to accommodate what ended up being the winning bid. As I wrote in August:

In its RFP, issued in April, BART had set the minimum speed for the OAC at 35 miles per hour, which is already really slow, and significantly slower than the initially proposed 45 mph. But on July 31st, BART released an addendum to their RFP that sets the minimum speed even lower, at 27 mph!

The speed limit on Hegenberger is 30 miles per hour, and while there are stop lights, at some points, traffic will be moving faster than the OAC. Then, on the airport road, the speed limit rises to 45 mph, which means that cars and buses will be speeding past the OAC. Even without considering the less seamless connection of the OAC (going upstairs at BART; going downstairs and across a parking lot at the airport), with these new lower speeds, I can’t imagine many scenarios in which the OAC would make the trip in less time than the current AirBART bus.

The truth is that after we lost at the Oakland City Council, I realized that this project was going to happen and there was little hope left of stopping it, no matter how wasteful it is. But I also hoped I had been wrong the whole time. I hoped that the bids would come in very low so that BART would not have to take out a huge loan that mortgages the entire system. I hoped that they’d pick a reasonable technology that would at least somewhat improve the trip time from BART to the Airport, albeit at triple the price. I hoped that people would ride it and that it wouldn’t bankrupt the system. Because ultimately, one of my biggest concerns is about BART’s longevity and if the OAC fails, BART fails along with it.

But now that I see what this project really is, I’ve lost much of that hope. I know it’s incredibly unlikely, but the right thing for the BART directors to do tomorrow would be for them to reject this project, now that they have all of the information at hand. I’ll be there tomorrow morning to tell them just that and to make one last stand against this terrible project.

If you agree, join me there:

What: BART Board Meeting on the Oakland Airport Connector
When: Thursday, December 10th @ 10am
Where: Kaiser Center – Third Floor, 344 20th Street in Oakland

Previous posts on the Oakland Airport Connector:

Flatiron / Parsons JV

$492 million

Walsh Construction


$571 million

Shimmick/Skanska/Herzog JV

$568.5 million

21 Responses to “Believe it or not, the final Oakland Airport Connector project is even worse than expected”

  1. Eric December 9, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

    Is there really any hope that they will reject this project tomorrow? Aside from some sort of show of force, would going to the meeting be anything other than an exercise in futility? I ask not because I’m in any way against you, I ask because I wonder if you see any reason for hope.

    • John Knox White December 9, 2009 at 1:06 pm #

      I can’t answer that question with any certainty.

      I can say that many directors stated publicly, and privately, that they would review the actual project details when the bids came in and they knew what they were voting on. Tomorrow, they will have a chance to show they were being genuine in their statements. Since they have zero information (at least that is public), they will need to ask for a delay in their decision.

      Or they will vote to approve the staff recommendation, indicating that it really doesn’t matter what the project looks like, they board supports it.

      Tomorrow’s vote is wholly about transparency on a $492 million project.

      That said, not showing up will certainly guarantee that the Board approves the project.

    • Becks December 9, 2009 at 2:03 pm #

      I think it is very unlikely that the BART Board will vote down this project, but I’m going to speak against it anyway. I think it’s important for them to know that advocates are still watching and though I don’t expect to effect this particular project, I hope it will make them think more critically about future expansions.

  2. dto510 December 9, 2009 at 3:02 pm #

    I would like to point out that I’ve said since the beginning that BART won’t see substantial bid savings since concrete and steel prices are not down. I even said this at one of our meetings with a Councilmember. Oh, and BART said they may see as much as 40% cost savings, not 30%. They said that AFTER they received the bids. It’s really unbelievable how much they lie about this project.

    Ignacio de la Fuente sent a letter to the BART Board today saying that the project doesn’t meet the Council’s conditions. The Council may also be unhappy to learn that they were lied to. Tomorrow’s vote may not be the end.

    • Andy K December 10, 2009 at 9:21 am #

      Well, bid prices across the country are down – about 30-40% – on transportation projects. By down, I mean below the agencies estimates. Contractor’s are lowering their profit margins (some times to no profit) just to keep their cash flow. What this price shows more than anything is that BART’s original estimate was too low.

  3. Daniel Schulman December 9, 2009 at 3:36 pm #

    In addition to having had to take BART at their word about substantial cost savings, transit advocates were not able to argue against claims of better reliability. However, now that we know that the headways might be 30 minutes, I think we have to conclude that the proposed technology is LESS reliable than Transform’s solution.

    If you just miss the bus connector, you might have to wait 12-15 minutes for the next one. If traffic is really bad it might add an extra 10 minutes to the trip. If you just miss this overhead connector, you might have to wait 30 minutes for the next one. People will have to allow more time when going to the airport to allow for this contingency.

  4. david vartanoff December 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    @ Becks you write “if the OAC fails, BART fails along with it.” Well, no, BART just continues its tradition of deliberately picking the wrong and most expensive choice at every turn. As long as their wholly owned subsidiary the MTC is willing to give them money voters raised for other projects($91 million “reprogrammed” from Dumbarton Rail), they have no incentive other than ethics to be more intelligent.

    • Becks December 9, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

      I honestly think that BART’s recent expansion decisions are unsustainable and will eventually sink the entire system. That might be exorbitantly higher fares or greatly reduced service.

      Though MTC is giving BART money for capital expenses, they aren’t being given enough for operating all of their expenses so they will continue to suck funds from the core system.

      • Andy K December 10, 2009 at 9:25 am #

        At some point the fares and service reductions will drive away patrons. What might happen will be more subsidies (higher sales tax, or property tax) to pay for BART service. Look for something like this to pay for replacement of the BART cars, an unfunded expense that is staring BART in the face.

  5. Naomi Schiff December 9, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    Please email the BART board at least, if you can’t make the meeting. They should keep hearing from us.

  6. Steve Carney December 9, 2009 at 8:24 pm #

    Is it true that the connector will only run twice per hour during certain time periods. Which time periods? And does the current AIrBART ever run at 30 minute intervals?

  7. Jame Ervin December 9, 2009 at 10:51 pm #

    This is ridiculous. I can’t even comprehend how wasteful this project is. I am hoping the BART board will see through this proposal for what it is: a clunker, and wait for something that is a win for BART, a win for airport passengers and a win for Oakland.

  8. oaklandhappenings December 10, 2009 at 3:56 am #

    Steve, it is _at least_ twice per hour, from what I recall– big difference.
    An AirBART bus spends 10-15 minutes at the BART station and airport, and spends–on average–30 minutes between each, for the combined to/fro trips. Therefore, it is 50 minutes to an hour interval for each bus to return to either the Airport or BART. Even at only ~30 mph, that translates to 15 minutes of combined travel for one OAC “train”/railcar/whatever, and probably no more than 2 minutes of dwell time on each end. Therefore, with 20 minute round trips, that could mean 3 an hour for just one OAC train alone. If there are more of them, even more trips. Since the wait time after getting off BART is supposed to be very short a few minutes at worst) more than one will be needed.
    See for more info, if you (and others) haven’t already.
    Anyway, just my view of it.

    • Becks December 10, 2009 at 8:50 am #

      You’re correct that it is at least twice per hour, but with BART’s record, I’m not encouraged that it will be much more often. Also, you’re wrong about how they’re calculating the headways. The headways for AirBART 10-15 minutes. By BART’s own documents, it looks like the OAC headways will be 20-30 minutes.

      • Andy K December 10, 2009 at 9:28 am #

        I’m curious as to how the cable car technology works. Can they have more than 2 trains on the line? Does anyone have any info on the technology?

    • Daniel Schulman December 10, 2009 at 9:57 am #

      With these kind of headways, it would be better to have a slower continuous track like a Disneyland ride. Even if it went only 10MPH, if you never had to wait, the the total ride would be about 20 minutes — every time, completely reliable.

      Then if BART added in some singing animatronic characters, people would pay the $12 roundtrip fare just for the fun of the ride. Imagine a robotic rabbit singing, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay; I hella luv Oakland, it’s better than ok.”

  9. V Smoothe December 10, 2009 at 10:15 am #

    I would like to echo dto510 and point out that many people opposing the project argued repeatedly that there was no reason to expect the bids to come in low like BART was saying.

    When BART was speaking to the City Council, well after they had received the bids on the OAC, they never once said that the OAC bids had been lower than projected. What they said repeatedly was that bids on one part of one other project had come in as much as 40% below projections, and therefore people could expect the same from the OAC. I pointed out to several Councilmembers that if the OAC bids had actually come in low, BART would be saying so, instead of talking about some unrelated project.

  10. oaklandhappenings December 10, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    Becks, my calculation came as this, if it relates to the second part of your response: Coliseum=12 min (for the sake of argument)+15 min going to Oak+12 min at Oak+15 min going to Coliseum. Give or take a few minutes for any of these, it is roughly 50 min to an hour for a single bus.
    If the link that I provided is correct with their total time from BART train to terminal entrance, that would have to mean a very short–wait for the OAC train.
    Speaking of all of this, what was the vote result this morning?

  11. Karen S. December 11, 2009 at 7:38 am #

    I can’t be at this meeting, but please know I’ll be there in earnest spirit. When will BART be stopped in its fraud?

  12. Steve December 11, 2009 at 7:42 am #

    Didn’t know about meeting until after today, 1 day after the meeting. Will someone who was there please report on the discussion and vote?

    • Becks December 11, 2009 at 8:42 am #

      I unfortunately had to leave the meeting for another meeting before the Board debated the project, but I did cover the staff presentation and a good portion of public comments on Twitter @OaklandBecks. Also, a colleague of mind video-taped the meeting and I’ll be posting some clips next week.

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