Bay Area's MTC Chooses Oakland Airport Connector for Stimulus Funds

Oakland Airport Connector» Project is prioritized over improved service for AC Transit riders.

As I’ve described before on the transport politic, the question of how to link transit systems to airports is a major issue for metropolitan areas that are focused on improving multimodal connections between airplane travel and neighborhoods. Serving airports can be a matter of pride for growing cities, as such service often attracts more wealthy riders who are usually less likely to use other forms of transit. That rich customer base is also one of the reasons that cities often have a political motivation to build such airport connections.

This week, the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission chose to use much of its apportioned federal stimulus funds to construct the Oakland Airport Connector, which will provide an automated people mover between Oakland’s Coliseum station and the airport 3.2 miles away. The MTC was considering how to spend the $341 million it will receive from the federal government in transit funds, and it chose to devote $70 million to the Airport Connector, over the objections of community members, who wanted more funds for Oakland’s AC Transit bus system. Coming in addition to funds already committed by Alameda County, the Port of Oakland, the state, MTC toll funds, and the FTA, the Connector now is closer to being completed, though it may still need an infusion of cash.

The project is likely to cost more than $530 million to build by 2012, all for a 10-minute trip that will replace the AirBART bus ride that currently serves airport-bound passengers. BART expects the train to serve 8,000 daily passengers in its first year and 15,300 in 2020.

There are some merits to the proposal. After all, the AirBART trip can take only 12 minutes to make the journey today, but during rush hour, that trip can morph into an hour-long operation, gruesome for a 3 mile journey. It would be a valuable construction project and fulfill the President’s mission of making the country a giant construction project over the next few years. Also, improved transit connections to the airport may help it develop as a competitor to San Francisco International Airport and improve air service for the East Bay overall.

A few years ago, BART opened its extension into San Mateo County, which included a station at San Francisco’s airport. That extension, which is poorly planned because the airport acts as a stub terminal to the line, rather than a through-running station, was expected to serve 17,000 daily passengers by 2010. Only recently has it reached an average of 11,000 per weekday. Keep in mind that San Francisco’s airport serves three times as many passengers as Oakland’s; should we really believe that the Oakland train is going to serve 15,000 daily passengers eventually? Color me skeptical.

The San Mateo extension provided a new station south of the airport in Millbrae (and Caltrain) and therefore improved the system as a whole for commuters, not just airport-goers. The Oakland Connector will provide no such added mobility for the region as a whole; does it therefore deserve the large amount of funds being fed into it?

I wonder whether a better solution to the Oakland airport problem would be the creation of a dedicated bus lane between the airport and the Coliseum station. It would be far cheaper to construct and it would ensure relatively quick commutes – probably a maximum 20-minute trip time, even during rush hour. Using the remainder of the limited stimulus funds to instead focus on AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit system would benefit typical commuters who need better service, rather than airport riders, who already have a pretty good deal.

Image above: Proposed Oakland Airport Station, from BART

3 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Don’t assume that the stub terminus is simply a result of poor planning … the FAA has been operating under a system of only releasing its airport/transit funds for projects that terminate at airports …

    … even though, of course, through stations at airports are superior solutions.

    This could, indeed, be used as an example of an “industry capture” of “its” federal agency … while more effective through train stations at airports would increase the opportunities to replace fuel inefficient small hop airlines that serve fewer passengers per gate, per take-off and landing and per runway, increasing the capital and operating costs of airports, it would do so by shifting business away from “the FAA’s industry”.

  • ian

    someone was playing around with a light rail connection for the airport to coliseum station integrated into a larger Oakland light rail network. though I was never a fan of BRT, the silver line in Boston did a good job… nevertheless I think an Oakland light rail network could kill the OAC and AC transit BRT birds with a much more pleasing stone.

  • Good argument, but two points:

    The political attractiveness of airport lines isn’t about wealth. These lines have a very broad middle-class appeal. Huge numbers of voters like the idea of an airport line because they might use it a couple of times a year. The problem is, even if everyone does use it twice a year, that’s not much daily ridership.

    The real issue with airport rail lines is that they are often so micro-designed around the needs of the passenger that they don’t serve airport employees very well. Airport employees often report to work somewhere other than the main terminal. You need these employees to create a solid daily ridership.

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