Feds pick connector to airport as model

May 18, 2007
BART-to-OAK test project for private backing

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters on Wednesday picked the BART-to-Oakland International Airport connector project as the first project for a new program testing the idea of letting private companies build and operate public transit.

The announcement that the Federal Transit Administration could help expedite and possibly help finance the estimated $377 million project left Bay Area transportation officials both hopeful and a bit befuddled.

Hopeful, because the project has long been held up over multiple concerns, such as whether BART should take on another risky airport venture like the costly extension to San Francisco International Airport.

Befuddled, because the project's difficulties, including union opposition to privatizing public transit and the possibility that airport management could undermine the connector's success by building more parking, would seem to make it an uncertain candidate for promoting public-private partnerships. "The possible significance is that it helps us find more revenue sources to build and operate the connector," said BART spokesman Linton Johnson. "Before this decision, we couldn't go to the federal government for any money."

The new program, called the Federal Transit Administration Public Private Partnership Pilot Program, could end the prohibition for government collaborations with business.

"By participating in this program, this BART project is going to be on the cutting edge of how we fund and build public transportation in America," said Wes Irvin, spokesman for the transit administration in Washington, D.C.

The new program does not promise any money, but could allow the connector project access to a number of federal funding programs if it passes muster with federal planners.

Johnson said the program is attempting to bring an idea that has been successfully tested among foreign transit systems to U.S. transit projects.

But others had a more ominous take.

"They have an ideological commitment to privatization," said Tom Radulovich, who represents San Francisco on the BART Board of Directors. "They're Republican. They want to prove that the private sector can pay for public transportation. Then they can get out of paying for public transit and pay for other things, like the Iraq war."

Indeed, the administration's exuberance over the connector was palpable, said Bob Franklin, who represents parts of Alameda County on the BART board.

"The feds were so interested, they turned this around in a day or so, when it usually takes months," Franklin said, adding that federal involvement could lower the system's financial risk.

While some officials have serious doubts about how realistic and viable the connector project might be, other board members believe it has made some important recent strides.

One is breaking a logjam over union representation of the connector's employees and issuing a request for proposal from private companies for helping build and run the three-mile line, which could end up being a monorail, a more conventional but automated train or even a "train" that runs on rubber tires on its own concrete path.

What the board found out was that it could not legally force private companies to use only union labor, Franklin said.

With that issue put to rest, BART issued a request for proposal on May 2.

Firms most likely to respond include those mentioned in BART documents from last year such as Bay Bridge retrofit contractor Tutor-Saliba, with Japanese automotive corporation Mitsubishi; British railway builder Balfour-Beatty; and financial giant Merrill Lynch. The winning group would be expected to contribute about

$170 million, while BART would have to cover the bulk of funding after the airport's $41 million contribution and whatever federal grants might materialize.

Airport officials were encouraged by the federal announcement.

" Its an opportunity to show that public-private partnerships can work," said Harold Jones, the airport's deputy director for external affairs after leaving a meeting with BART officials. "I think the biggest challenge was coming up with funding, and as much public funding as possible ... It's a way to deliver the project that's both different and innovative."

Read Erik Nelson's Capricious Commuter blog at InsideBayArea.com.

News stories provided by third parties are not edited by "Site Publication" staff. For suggestions and comments, please click the Contact link at the bottom of this page.