FTA Kills Plan to Use Stimulus Funds for Oakland Airport Connector

» $70 million will be redistributed for operating funds at cash-strapped local agencies; fate of $422 million more also committed to the project is unclear.

One clear outcome of the distribution of stimulus funds to transit agencies across the country was a marked preference for using the money to increase capital spending, rather than a ramp up of operations. Even as cities from New York to Denver have invested hundreds of millions of federal dollars in renovations and new line construction, they have cut spending on existing services. This has led to a peculiar situation in which transit agencies seem to be willing to trade bus drivers for construction workers.

Whether this process has resulted in a net increase in jobs is questionable. It certainly has produced a reduction in transit service quality, at least in the short term.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the availability of stimulus funds allowed the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to allocate $70 million of Washington’s dollars to the Oakland Airport Connector, even as it was cutting equivalent amounts from the operating budgets of the region’s transit agencies, including BART, Muni, and AC Transit. The end product: fewer people working in operations, more in construction.

Now, after an inquiry into the civil rights violations of the Airport Connector, the Federal Transit Administration has ruled that stimulus funds cannot be used for the project and that the money will have to be diverted elsewhere by March, or the Bay Area will lose out on the special federal financing altogether. Thankfully, the cash could be vital in shoring up the operating budgets of the area’s bus and rail agencies, and it could prevent the firing of hundreds or even thousands of operators.

The fate of the 3.2-mile, $492 million Airport Connector is now up in the air.

The FTA’s decision-making in regards to this project was not based on a concern for better transit provision — local decisions about allocations are supposed to be made by local officials — but rather as a result of a sort of technicality: because the region hasn’t studied and ensured adequate legally mandated civil rights compliance for the project now, it won’t be able to begin construction before September, which is when stimulus-funded projects are required to get off the ground.

But the elimination of these dollars for the Airport Connector is a good move for the region’s population, despite the corresponding loss of construction jobs. Not only is the rail line over-designed and too expensive considering the moderate number of riders expected to use it, but there are other, cheaper alternatives that would be just as effective. The extra funds not being used for the line can now be distributed for services to San Francisco’s Municipal Railway on the order of $17.5 million, Oakland’s AC Transit $6.8 million, and BART $17 million, though that latter agency’s direct connection to the Airport Connector project may put its own operations funds in danger as well.

This infusion of money won’t be enough to avoid all service cuts at local agencies — Muni is cutting a total of $28.5 million from its budget this year alone — but it will at least relieve some transit users. It certainly does not appear to be enough to rescue the proposed East Bay BRT line.

That is, unless the other $422 million that remains committed to the Airport Connector — including $89.1 million in Alamada County traffic congestion funds and $146 million Bay Bridge congestion funds — is abandoned in favor of other projects, a route that is being suggested by proponents of expanded transit operations in the Bay Area.

Yet the Metropolitan Transportation Commissioned seems convinced of the importance of the Airport Connector project, and even in response to the FTA’s negative judgment on funding the line, BART claimed that the project “does what stimulus funds are designed for,” that is, create jobs. But it’s hard to take that logic seriously when the transit agency is simultaneously finding ways to fire its existing employees.

Since when are the jobs of construction workers more valuable than those of bus and train drivers? How is it appropriate, in a time of limited funding, to prioritize a project that will give transit access to airport users alone when the hundreds of thousands of people using the normal system every day are seeing their trip times lengthened and their fares increased?

Choosing not to fund the Airport Connector with federal stimulus money, then, is a good decision on the part of the FTA. We’ll be waiting to see if those running the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission will come to the same conclusions and cancel the project entirely.

3 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • If Detroit’s private donors can build a streetcar/lightrail system in their downtown for $150MM, why can’t Oakland?

    Instead we had a bone-headed BART idea to build an expensive air train-to-nowhere. So GLAD that Dugger’s idea FLOPPED.

    We need MORE social equality in this country, not LESS.

  • JT

    There’s a good reason why capital investment funds should not be kept separate from operating funds–these operating shortfalls represent the only check on ever-increasing costs. The well-reported BART employee union contracts show just how little effort has been put into running efficiently. They need to go through the process of cutting services, feeling the heat from the community, readjusting costs downward significantly, and reestablishing the most necessary services.

  • Eric G.

    I have a good friend who lives in Berkeley and regularly flies out of Oakland Airport. He is completely transit dependent and so takes the BART and bus combo currently offered. Prior to this debate about the rail connector the only thing I ever heard him say about the connection was “oh yeah, it’s no problem. you take the train, then a quick bus and you’re there. Way easier than going all the way over to SFO” Since the debate came up we’ve discussed the train idea and the alternative bus idea (signal priority and dedicated roadway space) and both of us think that a bus can do the job perfectly well. Especially if that means additional funds become available for more worthy projects around the region.

    Cuts are going to be necessary no matter, and hopefully focus on the least efficient service, not core frequencies or routes. I’ve been jammed into almost every bus I ever rode in the bay area. A one time infusion of funds to operations is a good idea to make up for sales tax shortfalls in the current economy, but eventually the funding and expenses have to achieve a sustainable balance. CA needs major structural reform.

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