Oakland Int’l Gains New Public Transportation Link

Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

Getting to and from Oakland International Airport (OAK) is drastically easier for many passengers since the new connection opened in November between the airport and California’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) train system.


Project: Public Transit Connector

Location: Oakland (CA) Int’l Airport

Transit Provider: Bay Area Rapid Transit District

Distance: 3.2 miles

Design & Construction: Flatiron-Parsons Joint Venture

Equipment: Doppelmayr Cable Car

Approx. Budget: $484 million (in 2009 dollars)

Cost to Airport: $45 million

Collaborative Partners: Alameda Co. Congestion Management Agency; Alameda Co. Transportation Improvement Authority; CA Dept. of Transportation; CA Transportation Commission; Federal Transit Administration; Metropolitan Transportation Commission

Expected Riders: 2,000-3,000/day

Fee: $6

Key Benefits: Simplifies transit to/from the airport; relieves road & parking congestion; offers “greener” transit option

OAK’s financial share of the project was $45 million — just less than 10% of the total cost. “It’s important that we invest in transportation infrastructure that serves today as well as into the future,” explains Deborah Ale-Flint, Director of Aviation for the Port of Oakland.

The airport partially funded its slice of the public transit project through passenger facility charges. “The airlines understood that there would be great value,” says Ale-Flint. “The way we put this project together, we have more capital to deploy to continue to modernize our facility and improve the passenger experience.”

BART officials predict that most days, the new 3.2-mile line connecting its Coliseum Station and OAK will carry between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers. Trains run 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day at five-minute intervals during peak travel times and 10 and 20 minutes apart during off-peak hours. Travelers taking BART to the airport will get off their BART train at the Coliseum Station, and use escalators, stairs or elevators to reach a bank of fare gates and waiting areas to ride the new connecting line to the OAK Station. They arrive at the airport just across from Terminal 1 and a short walk to Terminal 2.

Previously, riders had to haul their luggage up a flight of stairs at the Coliseum Station and catch an AirBART shuttle bus, which sometimes ran late because of road congestion. Needless to say, the train-stairs-bus-plane sequence was unappealing for business travelers accustomed to smoother transition in other cities.

Interestingly, the new BART connection may affect the dynamic between OAK and San Francisco International Airport (SFO). East Bay residents who used to fly from SFO because it had an easier transit option may now go to OAK, because it’s closer, explains BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost. “Now, both OAK and SFO have quick connections to the airport,” she comments.

Let’s Ride

The mood was festive at the November grand opening of the new connector, with riders raving about the scenic views from the elevated tracks. Expansive glass windows on the train’s cars provide 360-degree vistas of the airport, golf courses, business parks and freeway crossings during the eight-minute ride between the Coliseum and OAK stations.

“The people riding on opening day were glued to the window looking at the surrounding areas and commenting on the potential of economic development,” reports Trost. “This connector could reignite the area.”

The convenience it is already providing to OAK’s arriving and departing passengers is copious — and valued. Executives from Doppelmayr Cable Car, the Austrian firm that supplied the trains and control systems, stress the importance of connecting airports to large public transportation networks. Doppelmayr Vice President F. Trip Belote refers to such connections as “the lifeblood of expansion” for some airports.

Belote considers OAK’s recently added transit service a great opportunity due to the proximity of the BART system and the multi-modal links the new connector provides. “I think the growth of the airport will be sustained and enhanced through this project,” says Belote. “An airport is like a city, and these feeder systems allow the economic growth of the airport.”

The new transit connection is particularly valuable, given the upsurge in traffic at OAK during recent years and projections for continued growth. It not only allows more riders to get to and from the airport more easily, it will also help alleviate associated roadway congestion and parking challenges.

“With the airport in Oakland seeing so much capacity potential, it’s great to look at what the options were before the new service and after,” elaborates Trost. “The AirBART bus could serve 700,000 riders per year. (The new train connection) can serve 3 million comfortably; and we can expand.”

The driverless format of Doppelmayr’s cable-propelled system will likely have many of those riders scratching their heads. Trains travel on elevated tracks to the wheelhouse, where they automatically switch to a different cable that pulls them along a track to the airport, explain company personnel.

Realizing that a driverless train may initially seem unusual to some riders, Trost emphasizes that the system operates under a watchful eye at all times. “The wheelhouse that runs the train is staffed 24 hours a day,” she explains. “There are real-time cameras in the cars, and someone is always there, watching. There will be an employee on the platforms and traveling the trains, and there is always staff watching the video feeds.”

Decades in the Making

OAK’s new transit link dates back to the 1970s, when the Port of Oakland and BART realized they needed a better connection to the airport. As years passed, ideas were considered and proposals generated, but the necessary parties could not reach an agreement; and the public balked at the idea of funding it.

“This project has had its share of ups and downs,” relates Ale-Flint.

In 2009, the initiative gained traction, and a team was assembled. A joint venture of Colorado-based Flatiron and California-based Parsons Corp. was selected to design and construct the project. That’s also when Doppelmayr Cable Car was selected to provide the trains and control systems.

“Together with Parsons, our goal was to provide a solution that met the challenge and was also economical,” says Richard Grabinski, senior vice president of Flatiron’s Western Division. “Some systems were not economically viable, such as heavy self-propelled cars. Those created the need for a substantial guideway with large concrete foundations, columns, rails, etc. We recognized that the Doppelmayr cars, which are much lighter, could be streamlined and much more efficient.”

The Flatiron-Parsons joint venture team thoroughly investigated Doppelmayr’s technology and methods, recalls Grabinski. Cable-propelled peoplemovers were touted as less costly to build, operate, and maintain over a traditional self-propelled system, and less visually obtrusive. Given the existing environment — a thriving airport in a busy California area — the system seemed like a good fit, he recalls. But it would undoubtedly be something different for the U.S. market.

“Parsons is a very conservative company, and we did our due diligence to see if cable-propelled cars were something with which we wanted to be associated,” recalls Parsons Vice President Dave Benjamin.

“We needed to confirm that the system could be made to meet the same high levels of safety as conventional automated people movers. The conclusion we reached was that European companies have very developed standards, and we were satisfied that the technology was right for the project.” 

Doppelmayr also brought worldwide transit experience to the project, including the marquee train system at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

The company’s cable-propelled system could easily be built in and around the existing airport space, and the open steel truss guideway structure would be more aesthetically pleasing than the concrete guideways of more traditional systems, explains Belote. Additionally, the system’s streamlined high-capacity cars would mean less congestion and traffic at the airport.

Doppelmayr’s systems are built on ideas that have been used for more than 100 years, most recognizably on cable cars and ski lift systems, notes Belote.

In 2010, the Flatiron/Parsons/Doppelmayr firm was officially announced as the system provider for the automated guideway transit system. The team decided to start with four three-car trains, powered by a central station, with a cable providing tractive force.

“It’s simple, proven base technology,” says Belote. “The vehicles don’t have complex on-board assemblies, such as drive motors, gearboxes or brakes; there are a lot of benefits to that in terms of maintenance.”

For more information about the development of project, see the January/February 2011 issue of Airport Improvement.

Money Matters

With operating costs estimated at $4.9 million for the first year and expectations for inflationary increases to follow, BART directors set the fare for the connector at $6. And the Port of Oakland and BART assembled a patchwork quilt of county and state funds to make the project work.

OAK lined up finances for its $45 million portion, using passenger facility charges to cover some of the costs. “Ultimately, this is a partnership between BART and the airport,” says Ale-Flint. “It makes a lot of sense that the regional transport system realizes the airports are important to the Bay Area.”

The joint venture participants could also foresee the project’s potential benefits. “With any airport, it’s hard to justify high-capacity transit service, because at the end of the day airports are not huge passenger generators,” says Benjamin. “However, half the people coming into any airport are visitors, and they are looking for local transportation. A rapid transit connection is a huge attraction. Look around the world and you’ll see that most major airports have convenient rapid transit access. It’s an important element for an airport to remain competitive.”

With the players and funding in place, construction began in 2011. BART and the project team established weekly taskforce meetings to solve the many detailed challenges that occur on a complex project in an urban area. In addition to the project team, meetings included representatives from major stakeholders such as OAK, the city of Oakland and major utilities. The California Department of Transportation was also included, because the guideway would be built over Interstate Highway 880.

“Co-location was a real key to our success,” Benjamin comments. “All of the partners co-located in one office to improve communication. We were able to get all of the benefits of working in the same office and resolve problems as they came up.”

OAK was an important stakeholder in the project, he adds. “We had to work carefully with them to ensure that our construction had the least possible impact on airport passengers and employees. We listened to their input and worked hard to satisfy their concerns. In the end, we delivered a major project on the airport with minimal impact to ongoing airport operations.”

Because the track for the connection runs above the parking area in front of OAK’s terminal, planners had to work carefully with parking lot operations to ensure that there was enough parking for passengers throughout the project.

Grabinski advises other airports considering similar public transit projects to include the airport right away. “Ultimately, they will benefit from it, even though it competes with their parking,” he explains. “Allowing them a seat at the table at the right level was very important. They have been excellent partners along the way, and their input was invaluable because we could really cut to the chase and react quickly.” 

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