BART’s plan for a rail link to the Oakland International Airport may get back on track with money from the federal job stimulus bill.
Back in November last year, I reported that the plan for a 3.2-mile-long elevated tramway hit a dead end for lack of funding. BART needed private partners to share in project costs, but failed to attract any allies amid deteriorating economic conditions and sharp declines in airline passengers.
Now President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill may come to the rescue of the proposed rail link between BART’s Coliseum station and the airport. BART now pegs the project cost at $529 million, a higher cost than earlier estimates because of inflation.
Earlier this week just before Congress passed the stimulus bill, Metropolitan Transportation Commission administrators made a preliminary recommendation to allocate $70 million of stimulus money for the Bay Area to the new rail link, otherwise known as the Oakland Airport connector project.
“It (stimulus) breathes new life into the project,” BART spokesman Linton Johnson said.
There are still obstacles, though, to the airport connector project.
A $70 million dose of stimulus funds would still leave BART $70 million to $100 million short of the $529 project cost, BART officials estimate.
To close that funding gap, BART might look at securing help from private partners, getting a slice of high-speed rail money to connect BART to California’s high -speed “bullet train” routes, or seek other public funds, according to a report BART managers gave to their transit board Thursday.
Another question mark is whether the amount of stimulus money available for the airport rail link will change.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission administrators may or may not revise their recommended $70 million allocation for the airport connector once they finish evaluating eleventh-hour changes Congress made before passing the stimulus earlier this week. Those changes reduced the amount of federal money for some transportation categories, but beefed up the amount for high-speed rail from $2 billion to $8 billion. Exactly what that means for the airport connector was not immediately unclear.
“We’re digesting the new numbers now,” said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler.
The full Metropolitan Commission is scheduled at 10:05 a.m. Feb. 25 in Oakland to discuss the federal stimulus bill money that the commission will divide up for the Bay Area.
Some MTC critics contend that allocating $70 million to the Oakland airport connector would come at the expense of bus systems like AC Transit, which want stimulus money to preserve bus service and bus drivers’ jobs.
“The MTC proposal would create “non-sustainable” construction jobs at the expense of eliminating permanent positions in public transit,” Rick Fernandez, AC Transit general manager, wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to the transportation commission.
Of course, there’s another lingering issue with the airport rail connector: Is it worth building? Some critics suggest the current BART shuttle buses from the Coliseum Station to the airport are good enough. Critics also suggest it would cheaper and simpler to build dedicated bus-only lanes from BART to the airport rather than a costly rail link.
BART managers and board members say the convenience and speed of direct rail service to the Oakland Airport would lure many people out of cars and onto rails, reducing congestion, smog and global warming gases.
Alternative technologies for the BART airport connector will be considered, Johnson of BART said. One option is using big cables to pull the train cars to the airport.
BART initially approved plans for Oakland airport connector project in 2002, a year before BART started direct rail service to the San Francisco International Airport.