Controversial BART tram to Oakland Airport opens, but questions remain

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, along with state transportation officials and politicos of all stripes, stood with smiles frozen Friday as they waited for one last politician before finally cutting the ribbon for the new monorail connecting BART to Oakland International Airport.

It was an appropriate stall, analogous to the project's 30-year holding pattern. The long haul finally concluded Saturday with the inaugural ride of the much-contested driverless tram.

But Friday at the official unveiling event, California Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly, an Oakland native, likened the moment to the city's football team, the Raiders, winning its first game of the season the night before.

“At last!” he said.

The 3.2-mile connector was proposed decades ago and over the years created much controversy. Now operational, it picks up passengers at the Oakland Coliseum BART station and whisks them on a silky-smooth 8-minute ride to the front of the Oakland International Airport.

“I remember when we barely got the five votes on the City Council to do this,” Quan said, adding that the new airport connector would help Oakland shine to newcomers on proposed international flights from China.

“I'm hoping next year, our first flight to China will come out,” she said. “This is something good for the Bay Area, and for East Oakland.”

The new tram might be a big improvement from the bus shuttle it replaced, but it still has critics.

TransForm, a transportation advocacy group, says the new connector is a boondoggle — too costly with little potential for heavy ridership, and constructed at a time when nearly $5 billion in funding is needed for major systemwide improvements to the BART network.

“This is frankly going to serve 1 percent of the daily ridership,” said Joel Ramos, a community planner with TransForm.

More specifically, the connector is projected to carry 2,745 passengers a day while the entire system averages about 400,000 daily trips. That projection is based on ridership on the former bus shuttle, AirBART.

By comparison, the BART extension to San Francisco International Airport launched with ridership of 25,000 a day 10 years ago and grew to its current 45,000, according to data provided by BART.

The new Oakland connector's total travel time to the airport is about 8 minutes — only four minutes faster than AirBART. AirBART also perennially suffered from slow boarding times, which officials say is improved with the tram's multiple wider doors.

All told, the new Oakland airport connector cost $484 million to build with a $3 million operational budget annually, BART documents show.

The SFO project, much larger in scope at 8.5 miles, cost $1.5 billion to complete, according to BART, and extends through stations in Colma, South San Francisco, San Bruno and Millbrae.

BART, according to TransForm, dropped the ball in that respect when it comes to the Oakland project. The group and others filed a federal Title VI complaint against BART in 2009 accusing the transit agency of not meeting federal obligations to study project impacts on the local community.

TransForm and others also accused BART of not properly evaluating other projects that would intersect with different communities in and around the airport.

The complaint was ultimately sustained, and BART lost some federal funding as a result.

Tom Dunscome, the Oakland airport connector project manager, put the complaint in perspective.

“It wasn't a ruling against [the project],” he said, “but a ruling against BART.”

But did the complaint change the project? “No,” Dunscome said.

After the decision, Dunscome said he asked the federal government how BART should reach out to the community and agency officials essentially shrugged.

There were no explicit standards at the time, only general guidelines.

BART in turn created its own outreach methods. The touring “BART car of the future” that made the rounds a few months ago is an example of the extensive outreach and research BART performs now, in light of the successful complaint.

“Our reaction was to become the gold standard” in outreach and research, Dunscome said.

The new connector has also been criticized for its fare: $6 from the Oakland Coliseum station to the airport. The same trip via Uber, for example, is $10 to $13 while a taxi would be a little more expensive.

The BART fare from the Powell Street station in downtown San Francisco to SFO is $8.65, which includes the $4 airport surcharge.

And though detractors say the AirBART bus was cheaper at $3 per ride, BART officials said the price was set to increase to $6 in the next few years anyway.

The project's high cost was money well spent, said Andreas Cluver, treasurer of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County.

Nearly half of the labor halls were unemployed before the project started.

And at the ribbon cutting, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said public infrastructure investments like the connector are key to job growth.

“Great infrastructure has cost, but it pays dividends into the future,” she said. “There were legitimate naysayers about the cost of this project.”

But now, she added, “We have to continue to accept great infrastructure has a cost but will benefit for years to come.”

Those who will not feel those benefits are the 13 AirBART drivers who were laid off following the closure of the shuttle service last week.

Ken Hu, an 11-year AirBART driver, said his job spared and he will now operate a shuttle circling the Oakland airport parking lot to take passengers to the tram.

“Luckily, I'll stay,” Hu said. But “this is really terrible for the people laid off just before Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

ABM, a national company that operates AirBART, could not be reached to confirm Hu's account.

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