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Airport Connector Back on Track

Rendering of the planned airport connector
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Rendering of the planned airport connector
After feds pull $70 million, BART makes local stops for funds

An angry federal government won't dissuade BART from building a rail connector to the Oakland airport.

The feds punished BART earlier this year for not studying the effects the project would have on poor minority communities by yanking $70 million in stimulus funds.

Now, BART, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and others are cobbling together an alternate financing plan behind the scenes to pay for the tram, which would run from the Coliseum station to the airport and cost nearly $500 million to build. The stimulus funds would be replaced with $45 million in state, county and BART funds -- and a $30 million increase in a federal loan program, according to an internal May 18 proposal obtained by The Bay Citizen.

Additional internal e-mails between transit agencies show that other transportation projects in the East Bay could pay the price. For instance, $10 million slated to be spent in 2014 on improvements to highway 880 near Fremont would be shifted to the airport connector -- although the communications say that the highway project money would be made up through other cost-savings.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson called the numbers a "skeletal outline of some of things we have been considering -- some of things will be on the list and some of the things won't."

"We are definitely looking at getting the funding to get this project going," said Johnson. "We're looking at a lot of different options."

John Knox White of TransForm, one of the primary critics of the connector project, said BART's planning shows it isn't taking the feds' concern seriously.

"They're basically doing an end run around this issue without doing this with federal funds," said Knox White.

Currently, passengers take a bus from the Coliseum station to the Oakland airport. The connector, which has been in the works for years, would be like the one that goes to San Francisco airport. There is a great deal of political will on the BART board and in Alameda County to get the project done.

"This is really putting people to work, so that's the short-term economic benefit,” said Johnson. “The long-term benefit is that it puts that airport on the map as a world-class facility.”

BART's plans went off the rails after transportation and social justice groups TransForm, Urban Habitat and Public Advocates filed what is known as a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transportation Commission last year. They claimed that the airport connector would serve wealthy airport goers at the expense of bus-riders and that the $70 million would be better spent on the existing transit system.

The feds agreed, ruling in February that BART hadn't done its homework about how the project would effect poor minority communities.

Since then, BART has been trying to get back into good standing with the feds by holding community outreach meetings -- and looking to make up the $70 million in other ways.

The new pieces of the funding scheme include, according to the May 18 proposal: 

- $10 million from BART's capital bond reserves

- $10 million from a funding "swap" with the Alameda County Transportation Authority and its Mission/880 highway project

- $10 million in another funding swap with the Alameda County Congestion Management Agency

- $12.8 million from the state's Public Transportation Modernization, Improvement, and Service Enhancement Program created under Proposition B, passed in 2006 

- $5.4 million from the state's Interregional Transportation Improvement Program

-$104.7 million federal loan, up from $76 million in the original proposal

The rest of the $484 million project will be coming from the same sources, such as the Port of Oakland and the bridge toll hikes, which BART proposed when it took the first stab at the project.

The internal communications obtained by The Bay Citizen show that all of the transit agencies appear to be working together to find funding for the connector. In an email to an alphabet soup of transit agencies – BART, ACTIA, ACCMA – the MTC's Kenneth Kao writes that a number of agencies are in the midst of making sure that the complicated 880/Mission funding swap can happen. Kao writes in the e-mail the highway 84 widening project near Livermore could be delayed a year as a result as well.

Knox White said that the airport connector has become a white whale for BART and the MTC.

“This is like Captain Ahab,” he said. “It doesn't matter what this project has become, they're basically saying 'we will under all circumstances build this project no matter what.'”

BART spokesman Johnson said he expects that a funding plan for connector will be before the BART board as early as next week.

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