Hey! What About Us? 

As BART prepares its SFO debut, the Oakland Airport's advantages aren't so obvious anymore.

Travelers flying from Oakland International Airport will one day be able to board driverless trains at the BART Coliseum station. Departing roughly every four minutes, these trains will whisk along Hegenberger Road on an elevated track and deposit passengers at the fifth floor of a parking garage right across the street from the airport terminals. Cross a pedestrian bridge, and you're at the check-in counter. The trip would take about eight minutes. The current AirBART shuttle bus takes twice that long, even when there's no traffic -- and that doesn't including the time people have to sit and wait for the darn thing to pick them up at the BART station.

The drawback is that we'll have to wait until at least 2008 for this train service; even the design contracts aren't due to be doled out until '04. Meanwhile, BART service to San Francisco International is scheduled to debut next spring.

It would seem that the added convenience of BART would lure East Bay passengers to SFO, the sixth-busiest airport in North America in passenger volume, and away from Oakland International, which ranks fortieth. San Francisco, after all, has far more nonstop flights, and for many locals it'll now be cheaper and easier to get to than our own airfield.

If local officials are worried about a plane drain, they sure aren't showing it. "The East Bay population continues to grow, and the number of people that Oakland serves continue to grow annually," says airport spokeswoman Cyndy Johnson. "People have a variety of decisions for why they choose the airport they fly out of. It might be for fares; it might be for whatever airline alliance they have with a frequent flyer program. Another reason could be its proximity to business or residence. Typically, the reason they choose to go to an airport is not because of the ground transportation available to them."

Well, what about fares then, and nonstop availability? Suppose you're flying to the East Coast on September 11 (what the heck), returning a week later. A search for the cheapest fares to Philadelphia, Boston, and Newark from both SFO and OAK yielded the following: Oakland didn't offer nonstops to any of the cities. The one-stop Oakland-to-Philly trip ($331) cost more than a nonstop SFO-to-Philly ($248). One-stops to Newark cost $308 from Oakland versus $258 from SFO (the nonstop SFO-Newark ticket cost $341). Flying to Boston's Logan Airport, you can save a few bucks flying from Oakland ($325) over SFO ($366), and while you can fly nonstop SFO-to-Boston, you'll pay dearly ($628).

The verdict? Throw in BART service and SFO looks like the winner.

"Could there be some leakage? Absolutely," Johnson acknowledges. "But we're not overly concerned." She notes that Oakland has added flights in the last year while SFO has not. Discount airliner JetBlue, in fact, just announced plans to add nine more flights from Oakland to Long Beach. And Southwest closed its SFO operation last year, relocating some of those flights to Oakland.

In 2001, when most airports experienced a drop in passengers, Oakland International was one of just a few airports nationwide that saw increased business. While 35 million passengers flew through SFO last year, that was a 15.5 percent drop from the prior year. Oakland International grew by 6.8 percent, with more than 11.7 million people passing through the airport. That's nearly double the 6.2 million passengers flying from Oakland a decade earlier.

Airport officials are bullish on future growth. A new multistory parking garage, part of a $1.4 billion airport expansion, will house the new BART-to-OAK station and rental car companies, in addition to six thousand new parking spaces. It is slated to open in 2008 to coincide with the new BART service. The expansion plan also calls for a consolidated terminal building for check-in and baggage claim (currently split between two terminals) and twelve additional gates. "The gates we have are already overused, and we have to carefully schedule airlines into them so we actually need the gates now to accommodate the business we currently have," Johnson said.

The AirBART buses, which shuttled 775,472 riders from June 2001 through this past June, are already operating at capacity, said BART spokesman Mike Healy. He expects a design contract to be awarded in February 2004 for the $232 million connector project. A sales-tax measure approved by Alameda County voters in 2000 will provide $76 million. The rest comes from the state ($88 million); the Port of Oakland, which oversees the airport ($25 million); the city ($12 million); and bridge tolls ($31 million).

Compared to the $1.5 billion SFO-BART connector (which runs mostly underground), building Oakland airport's BART should be uncomplicated, Healy says. The automated trains will run on 3.2 miles of aerial track to the airport. The route will include two stops along Hegenberger Road and is expected to shuttle 13,000 passengers daily, and nearly 20,000 during peak travel seasons.

The Oakland project also won't be busting through cemeteries or endangered-garter-snake habitat, both of which slowed the progress of the SFO connector.

"Thank God," says Healy.

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