(Oakland, California - Casey Miner, KALW News) After a marathon hearing today at which more than 20 people spoke, the BART board gave its final approval to the Oakland Airport Connector project, pending a guarantee of funds from the Port of Oakland. The project stalled earlier this year when it ran afoul of federal civil rights statues and lost $70 million in stimulus money, but roared back to life a month ago when BART found a way to fund the project without stimulus dollars.
Advocates say the 3.2-mile elevated connector will make reaching the Oakland Airport faster, easier, and more convenient than the current AirBART bus which shuttles passengers back and forth between the airport and the Coliseum BART station. In the best-case scenario, they promise thousands of new jobs for Oakland residents and as much as a 40% increase in ridership on the BART system.
But today's hearing offered little solace to those with persistent concerns about the project
—namely, whether the job numbers are all they're cracked up to be and whether those ridership numbers will actually be high enough to justify the financial burden BART is assuming. Representatives of transit advocacy groups TransForm and Urban Habitat raised these issues repeatedly, and a number of BART board members seemed to share them: District 7 director Lynette Sweet said she was unsettled by the fact that BART had overstated the number of jobs the project would create; vice-president Bob Franklin cataloged at length the reasons he felt uncomfortable with the funding structure. Even board president James Fang expressed serious reservations about the agency's ability to pay for the project over the long term. "Long after this thing is over," Fang said, "BART will still be on the hook."
When it came time to vote, though, the board almost unanimously supported moving forward (only District 9 director Tom Radulovich voted against approval). Given all of the hesitation people expressed, why the determination to go ahead anyway?
Vice-president Franklin, who introduced the amendment requiring guaranteed funding by the Port of Oakland (and said he'd be a "hell-no vote" if that money didn't come through), told me after the meeting that the connector has a sense of inevitability about it. "It was moving forward," he said. "There's this idea that we're here, we're at the finish line, let's just get across." In other words, the questions of whether the connector should even be built, or if the half-billion dollars it's expected to cost could be better used elsewhere in the Bay Area, aren't even under consideration.