New Ideas for the Troubled Path to Oakland Airport

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(San Francisco—Casey Miner, KALW News) If you had to get the Oakland Airport, and fast, would you rather ride a train or take a bus?

What if the train cost twice as much as the bus? Then again, what if the bus took longer?

These are the questions addressed in a new study evaluating the relative costs and benefits of several alternatives to the battered Oakland Airport Connector project.

Advocates at the nonprofit TransForm, which opposes the OAC, asked national transit firm Kittelson & Associates, Inc. to study bus alternatives to the connector and determine whether they would be feasible or cost-effective. The full study is available online, but here’s a quick summary of the options:

–The first is just to keep the AirBART buses that currently run between the Coliseum BART station and the airport.

–The second is a rapid bus which would go directly to the airport in a curbside lane also open to right-turning traffic.

–The third, called RapidBART, would include a dedicated center lane and a flyover bridge that buses could use to avoid event traffic at the Coliseum.

–The fourth is the OAC as it is now proposed, as an elevated track from BART to the airport.

The numbers in the report favor a rapid bus, preferably the RapidBART option that uses a dedicated center lane. The report estimates that as of 2013, when the new system would open, the bus trip would take 13-17 minutes from the BART station to the terminal; a ride on the OAC would take just under 15 minutes. Both estimates factor in “buffer” time for traffic: 4 minutes for the bus, none for the OAC. (Using those same measurements, AirBART service can take up to 35 minutes).

Though ridership and travel time is comparable to what the OAC is expected to achieve, the cost of the OAC – $500 million to build and $6 each way to ride – far outstrips the projected cost of a bus, which the report puts at $150 million to set up and $3 each way to ride.

BART studied a bus option, then called the Quality Bus, in 2002, and determined that problems with reliability and traffic impact made it a poor choice. Since that time, though, rapid bus design and technology have improved significantly, says TransForm’s program director John Knox White.

“With an exclusive lane proposal like RapidBART you could do many different things,” he says. “You could have multiple bus lines use it. You could have an express bus to the airport and have locals that stop every quarter mile if you wanted to.”

But do we want to? The smaller design questions of where the bus or train goes, if or how often it stops, and how long it takes, add up to a much bigger question that seems well worth considering before committing any amount of money into a project of this scale: What do we want the airport connector to be? A dedicated flyover train from BART to the airport accomplishes one goal, while a potentially multi-stop bus accomplishes another. Bus advocates argue that the flexibility and lower cost of a bus line mean that the benefits of such a project will be more widely shared, but it may come at a cost of convenience that defeats the purpose of having a connection in the first place.

Bob Franklin, vice-president of the BART board of directors, said he thought the report’s findings were interesting, but that at this point the agency may not make the decision. BART is seeking funds from the federal government’s Small Starts program, the Port of Oakland, and the California Transportation Commission. If any one chunk doesn’t come through, it’s back to the drawing board.

“It’s a pro-expansion BART board,” said Franklin, “but when there’s no funding available you have to consider alternatives. It’s nice to see one alternative fleshed out.”