There's No One in Charge 

Transit activists make a convincing case for why the BART airport connector is a boondoggle. But the Bay Area has no agency that will make a better choice.

BART officials say a new elevated tramway from the Coliseum Station is the best way to get travelers to Oakland International Airport. But a group of transit activists say the Oakland Airport Connector is a half-billion-dollar boondoggle, and the region would be better served by a rapid-bus system at about one-tenth the price. The activists make a persuasive argument. But the Bay Area lacks a regional transit agency capable of recommending the system that makes the most sense.

The problem is that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional agency led by politicians from around the Bay Area, has historically let individual transit agencies decide what to build. Predictably, the Bay Area is now a hodgepodge of transit options that interconnect poorly. And BART appears determined to plow ahead with its $500 million connector, despite convincing evidence that it may not be the best option. "This project loses money once it's built and it continues to lose money after that," explained Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, a transportation wonk who is attempting to convince the council to oppose BART's plans.

BART officials have spent much of the summer defending their project and trying to downplay the rapid-bus proposal, saying they studied it in 2002 and determined it wasn't feasible. But their claims don't stand up to scrutiny. Agency documents obtained by an Oakland-based transit advocacy group, TransForm, reveal that at least one BART consultant acknowledged that the agency has not thoroughly examined the bus system proposed by transit activists. Moreover, internal e-mails obtained by TransForm raise serious questions as to whether BART officials could be unbiased. In one e-mail sent earlier this year to BART consultants, Tom Dunscombe, the airport connector project director, asked for help to "discredit" TransForm's rapid-bus plan. "Any information you can provide to put holes in this would be appreciated," Dunscombe wrote.

The rapid-bus system would take travelers to and from the airport on specially designed buses that make limited stops, have their own lanes at intersections along Hegenberger Road, and would run through a series of prioritized green lights to avoid slow downs. TransForm estimates it will cost about $45 million to $60 million to build. By contrast, BART wants to construct an elevated, automated tramway that would cost $522 million to $552 million.

As for the BART e-mails, they're not all that surprising. It's not uncommon for public agencies to become wedded to plans and decisions over time, and then fiercely defend them rather than objectively consider alternatives. BART staffers have wanted to build a rail connector for at least two decades. In addition, BART views itself as a train operator — not a bus operator.

Which is precisely why the Bay Area needs the MTC or some other agency to independently analyze such things and make unbiased decisions. If a rapid-bus system were the right choice, the agency could then direct AC Transit to build and run it, leaving BART to concentrate on what it does best.

Kaplan pointed out that the Bay Area could learn from other metropolitan areas that have coordinated planning agencies. The Portland area, for example, has Metro, a regional body that analyzes transit needs, studies options, and then makes recommendations for implementation to the area's transit agency, Portland TriMet, said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch.

But Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, who sits on the MTC board, along with the boards of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, thinks a regional transit agency won't be enough. "It needs to include land use," he said. "In an ideal world, one body would encompass both." That way, the agency could analyze and recommend developments that slow suburban sprawl and transit options that help fight global warming.

As it stands, the best Kaplan and other opponents of BART's plans can hope for is to convince an agency that is helping pay for the airport connector to change its mind. For example, the Port of Oakland, which owns and operates the airport, is proposing to spend $44 million on the tramway. BART needs the port's money to make the project pencil out. But if Kaplan and Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who also staunchly opposes the tramway, can convince a majority of the council to oppose it, it would pressure the commission to change course.

But that could leave us with what we have now — AirBART, a rinky-dink airport shuttle service that is vulnerable to bad traffic and inconvenient for families with small children. Which is another reason for why we need a regional agency that can determine the best transit solutions and make the right decisions.

Targeting Monica Ung

The office of City Attorney John Russo has launched a fraud investigation into NBC General Contractors and its owner Monica Ung. As the Express reported, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office has charged Ung with 48 felonies for allegedly ripping off her employees on public works projects and then lying to public agencies about it, including the City of Oakland (see, "Monica's Victims," 8/26/09).

Vicki Laden, a supervising deputy city attorney who handles labor matters in Russo's office, said she began the investigation after reading the article, which she described as "alarming." "We moved on it immediately," she said. She said she already has uncovered evidence that Ung and NBC defrauded workers on the city-financed Fox Court Apartments in Oakland's Uptown district. As a result, Laden said she requested that the city withhold final payment to general contractor J.H. Fitzmaurice, which employed NBC as a subcontractor.

Laden said she has not yet uncovered evidence that NBC and Ung engaged in fraud in the 81st Avenue Library project in East Oakland. NBC is the general contractor on that project. Laden said her office hopes to interview NBC employees who have worked at the library and is encouraging them to come forward.

Ellyn Moscowitz, an attorney representing several ex-NBC workers, said she also has been contacted recently by the Peralta Community College District. Peralta officials told this newspaper that they had uncovered no evidence that Ung and NBC had defrauded workers on projects at Laney College and the College of Alameda, but their investigation was superficial. In fact, several public agencies, including Peralta and the City of Oakland, conducted only cursory reviews of NBC's practices after Ung was arrested. Their failures apparently violated a state law that penalizes agencies that knew or should have known that their contractors were defrauding workers.

Perata Works for Prison Guards

Ex-State Senator Don Perata, who is running for mayor of Oakland, has been also working as a "consultant" for the state's powerful prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association. According to campaign finance reports, a union committee paid Perata at least $40,000 earlier this year. The committee also paid Perata's close friend and advisor Sandra Polka more than $40,000, plus $100,000 to a committee she helped operate. In addition, the committee cut a $50,000 check earlier this year to an Alameda-based nonprofit for which Perata is president of the board of directors.

It's unclear exactly what Perata has done for the prison guards' union to earn such lucrative payments. According to Sacramento sources, the union was not heavily involved this summer in the fight over the governor's prison reform plan and the attempt to lessen the state's inmate population. Nonetheless, Perata's involvement with the group won't go over well with progressive Oakland voters because the union has a long history of supporting prison building and the prison-industrial complex.

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