Is shaving five minutes off that trip to the airport worth it?

Stimulus money will make it easier for affluent Californians to get to the airport. But everyone else will be stuck in traffic.

Published March 6, 2009 4:53PM (EST)

Upon touching down at Oakland International Airport on Tuesday, I looked out the window of the plane and winced at the falling rain. My daughter and I were tired after a 48-hour cross-continental turnaround, we were operating on little sleep, and I just wasn't looking forward to catching the bus to the BART station, taking the subway to Berkeley, and then walking home in the rain with our bags.

So you might think I would be delighted to learn from Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic, that the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission has decided to use 70 million of its alloted 341 million of federal stimulus funds to "to construct the Oakland Airport Connector, which will provide an automated people mover between Oakland's Coliseum station and the airport 3.2 miles away." A nice fat construction project that will put people to work and make my life more comfortable. Sweet!

Except that, as Freemark notes, it's really not that hard to get from the BART station to the airport via the bus, which runs regularly and usually takes no more than 10-15 minutes. Freemark suggests the money might be better spent in improving Alameda county's Bus Rapid Transit system, which "would benefit typical commuters who need better service, rather than airport riders, who already have a pretty good deal."

Because goodness knows, local public transit authorities in California are headed for big trouble. As Progressive Railroading Daily reports, the recently concluded state budget deal is a disaster for public transportation.

The State Transit Assistance (STA) budget, which had been funded at $306 million, recently was cut to $150 million for the 2008-2009 fiscal years -- hundreds of millions less than what's due to state transit agencies under a voter-approved funding formula. The STA, which serves as the primary source of operating funds for California transit agencies, then would be abolished completely in the next fiscal year.

The budget cuts are on top of the $1.8 billion in current-year transit-dedicated funds that were diverted to the state's general fund, CFTE said. So, expect transit agencies to hike fares, cut service and lay off workers, California Transit Association Executive Director Joshua Shaw told CFTE.

So even as federal stimulus money heads towards a shovel-ready project that will employ workers and improve transportation logistics -- a laudable goal -- the beneficiaries of the project will be air travelers who really don't need that extra couple of minutes shaved from their transportation time. Meanwhile, the workers traveling to and from the people-mover construction site will likely face higher fares and worse service.

I don't have an obvious solution to this other than to say that a critical part of dealing with climate change and energy constraints is to build up public transportation at all levels, and not just where it benefits the well-heeled. My life will get a little easier in a couple of years, but my state is getting poorer all the time.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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