"Train-to-Plane" Rail Connection Expected to Reclaim Marketshare for Oakland Int'l

Ronnie Garrett
Published in: 

Reliability has long been a shining star for Oakland International Airport (OAK) in Northern California. Among the 40 largest airports in the nation, nearly 5 million passengers depart OAK each year to destinations worldwide, and they consistently give it top marks for on-time service.

Getting to the San Francisco Bay area airport to catch flights, however, can be another story. Local roadways are renowned for congestion and slow travel. That's why airport officials are so enthused about a rail connection to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that's expected to be completed in 2014.

When Oakland International decided to invest in a $492 million automated people mover (APM) to connect the airport with BART's Coliseum Station, its air carriers and the Port of Oakland, which owns and operates the airport, supported the initiative.

The 3.1-mile rail connection will replace the current AirBART bus service and is designed to decrease passenger travel time and improve connection reliability. In time, officials foresee the APM connection becoming yet another shining star for the airport.

"I'm extremely excited about this project," says Deborah Ale-Flint, director of aviation at Oakland International. "I believe the BART Connector, combined with recent terminal and roadway improvements, will become a catalyst for Oakland International's emergence as a world-class facility."

The airport, she explains, recently suffered significant traffic declines - a trend she attributes partly to the recession and partly to BART's extension to nearby San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

SFO keeps popping up as the airport of choice - even when it is farther away from a passenger's starting point or final destination, because BART goes directly to SFO, says Linton Johnson, BART's chief communications officer. "When we opened up the SFO extension, ridership skyrocketed," Johnson notes. 

At the same time traffic at SFO increased, traffic at Oakland International decreased, leading Ale-Flint to conclude it was likely due, at least in part, to SFO's new BART connection. "We have always positioned ourselves as having one of the best, if not the best, access to the BART system with our AirBART bus connection," she says. "But once the SFO rail connection was implemented, we could no longer say that. I'm relying on this project to restore that competitiveness for our airport."

Training Passengers

As OAK has discovered, cable-driven trains, like the one Doppelmayr Cable Car is building for its system, can provide superior reliability and substantially increase capacity during peak travel times.

Current plans include 3.1 miles of track to connect the BART Coliseum station (shown above) and Oakland International.

According to Johnson, reliability is expected to be an impressive 99.5%. "It will be a 14 1/2-minute trip from the time you take the BART train, walk off and take the OAK people mover to the terminal," he adds. "The AirBART bus trip alone, without the wait time for the bus, is 15 minutes on a good day."

Often, he notes, the trip takes longer - especially when sporting events at Oakland Coliseum, freight trains and/or auto accidents slow traffic. Train systems like the airport's future APM eliminate such delays by running above roadways.

Airport officials hope the system's increased reliability will help passengers using other Bay Area airports view Oakland International as a more viable option. "This airport (OAK) is fabulous," says Johnson. "But bridging that last three miles to get to the airport is often difficult."

Greener Connection

Beyond reliability improvements, airport officials look forward to the APM's environmental advantages. It will carry more passengers per trip than the current buses, and it will make trips more quickly. Representatives from the Flatiron/Parsons joint venture that will design the BART-Oakland Airport Connector say the system will travel at a maximum speed of 31 miles per hour. It is expected to include four trains of three cars each that can carry up to 1,492 people per hour per direction.  The use of cable propulsion technology, they note, will provide better operating efficiency compared to other modes of transportation.

"This sustainable system will take cars off Bay Area streets and freeways," says Rosemary Barnes, OAK's spokesperson. "Offering train-to-plane service at Oakland International is an important long-term investment to reduce traffic at the airport, and its associated emissions."

Economic Boost

When handled properly, APM projects can also boost the economies of surrounding communities, adds Johnson. "Oakland has been hit hard by the recession, and this project will provide much-needed jobs, especially among the East Bay's building and trade unions," he says.

BART worked closely with the City of Oakland to ensure that Oakland residents are hired for 25% of the project's work hours. Project managers conservatively estimate that the project could create as many as 5,000 jobs, providing an economic shot in the arm for the area's ailing workforce.

"That's one of the attractive things about this project: In the short-term, it provides jobs; in the long-term, it provides a legacy solution to an airport that is one of the gems of the Bay Area," says Johnson.

Troubled Waters

Garnering approval and funding for the project was complex. In fact, it took nearly three decades to get this far. While approval from the majority of the community came easily, a small faction of dissenters contributed to delays that caused a funding reallocation and nearly derailed the project.

In addition to an airport station, the project will add a train maintenance station.

"It's often said that 10 percent of the people create 90 percent of the problems," muses Johnson. "This was more like .2 percent of the people creating 90 percent of the problems."

A small group of individuals sued on civil rights grounds, questioning whether project managers had done their due diligence in alerting and eliciting support from minority communities - something Johnson finds ironic because they were among the project's greatest supporters.

A change in a Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) circular, released after the primary legwork of the project was complete, required additional steps about analyzing the project's impact on minority communities. As a result, the FTA withdrew $70 million in stimulus funds last February, citing Title VI deficiencies.

"This money was redirected to Bay Area transit agencies, where it was used for maintenance," says Trip Belote, vice president of Doppelmayr Cable Car. "Now the money is gone, and it didn't save a single job."

BART acted quickly to fill the $70 million funding shortfall.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state and local agencies helped develop a new funding plan, and BART relied more heavily on a low-interest federal loan to bridge the financial gap. 

For its part, the Port of Oakland will contribute $45.4 million for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the connector. The airport plans to fund its contribution through Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs).

"While every airport's funding strategy would certainly be different and can come from a variety of sources, we were very pleased the project was eligible for PFCs as a capacity-enhancing project," says Ale-Flint.

Lessons to be Learned

As Oakland International moves forward with its historic transportation project, officials there offer tips to other airports hoping to garner support for similar projects. Connection to regional rail systems offer many benefits, they say, but funding and community support are critical to bring such projects to fruition.

"Airports should partner with their respective transit agencies early, and regularly communicate with those involved," Ale-Flint advises.

Oakland International also focused on communicating with neighboring communities and its airlines throughout the process. Open dialog with airlines helped the carriers understand why the project was needed and how it would benefit them, Ale-Flint explains. The airport's largest carriers even wrote letters of support for the connector.

Facts & Figures

Project: Automated People Mover

Location: Oakland (CA) Int'l Airport

Projected Cost: $492 million

Route: Airport to Bay Area Rapid Transit
Coliseum Station

Length: 3.1 miles

Expected Completion: 2014

Design & Engineering: Flatiron/Parsons Joint Venture

APMs, Operation & Maintenance:
Doppelmayr Cable Car

Despite best efforts, communication lapses did occur. "There were a couple of critical areas where the [BART] project management team needed to work more closely with the marketing or communications department or both," Johnson recalls.

Project funding, for instance, hit a speed bump a couple years ago when a proposed public-private partnership fell through. Investors sought information about the highest fare that would need to be charged in order for them to recoup their costs. The worst-case $6 fare - double the current AirBART cost - caused an uproar. "Those numbers were thrown out publicly, but we have never set a fare for this connector and don't plan on setting one until close to opening day," Johnson emphasizes. Airport officials attribute premature concern about fares, coupled with a troubled economy, for the demise of the public-private partnership.

"We were never connected with the [BART] project management team," recalls Johnson. "They were so focused on this project and dotting their Is and crossing their Ts, that they never understood the power of getting the right message out and being ahead of the messaging to make sure the community understood the benefits of this project."

According to Johnson, the primary message should have been: Whatever the cost of this fare, it will be worth it.

"That number should have never gotten out," he reflects. "And if it did get out, it should have been put in perspective so that people understood the value they would receive for that $6, instead of only seeing the fare as double the cost of the current bus system. These days, air travelers think nothing of paying $6 for a watered-down cocktail on board their plane. I can't imagine they'll balk at paying $6 to ride a train that comes every four minutes with 99.5 percent reliability to make sure they don't miss their flight to the vacation they paid dearly for."

For an APM initiative to be successful, adds Belote, project managers need to provide as many opportunities for community input as possible. "You need to make sure that the people who advocate the project for you are as organized and as vocal as the small faction of people who do not approve," he advises. "Where there is an opportunity to voice opinions and to educate, there will be support."

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