OAKLAND -- More than a decade after BART's Oakland Airport Connector was proposed, concrete columns that will serve as its foundation are finally rising in the median of Hegenberger Road.
Within two years, cable-drawn, three-car trains will transport passengers from the Coliseum BART station to Oakland International Airport along an elevated track that proponents of the project say will be faster and more reliable than the current AirBART bus system.
For them, the columns signify an important victory in a long and hard-fought battle over a new transportation connection that, they say, will not only ensure continued growth at Oakland's airport but also provide much needed construction jobs for Bay Area workers.
Once completed, the almost $500 million connector will have created at least 2,500 jobs, proponents predict, and offer the Bay Area a signature extension to a growing transportation network much like the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge or the international terminal at San Francisco's airport.
"There was a lot of debate about the San Francisco airport expansion, but now anybody you ask raves about it. You are going to see something similar in the future with the airport connector," said BART spokesman Jim Allison. "Generations from now, people will wonder why there was any debate about it."
Critics, however, see the columns as an example of government waste perpetuated by a stubborn vision of the future based on faulty projections in the past.
The jobs promised won't be created, they say. Neither will the decreased travel times BART has promised the connector will meet shuttling passengers the 3.2 miles between the airport's terminals and the Coliseum BART station.
The only lasting impact the connector will have, detractors say, is a debit bill that BART passengers will have to pay for decades and more important BART projects stuck in the planning phase with no source of funding available.
"None of the problems with this project have gone away just because they have broken ground," said John Knox-White, executive director of TransForm, a transportation watchdog group. "This was a political pet project that was pushed through because many people had been working on something that looked like this for a long time."
Since it was proposed more than a decade ago, the airport connector has been an on-again, off-again project.
Changes to how the Port of Oakland planned to expand its airport caused delays, a shift in how the project would be funded almost killed the plan and then, last year, the federal government withdrew monetary support, claiming BART failed to properly study the impact of the connector on minority and poor residents.
All the while, the cost of the project increased from an initial price tag of roughly $130 million to the current coast of almost $500 million.
BART officials defend the rising costs and say the initial projection was not accurate and not made by them. The increases that followed were due to delays and a souring economy.
The rising costs also impacted the projected cost of riding the connector. In BART's environmental impact report, the agency said it would have to charge $12 for a round trip on the connector to ensure the project pays for itself.
AirBART currently costs $6 per round trip.
Allison said fare predictions for the connector are not guaranteed. The BART board could lower the fares and then subsidize the connector through other revenues, he said.
But while the cost estimates rose, the number of jobs that officials predicted the connector would generate declined.
Initially, proponents said the connector would create 13,000 jobs, including direct and indirect jobs. Now, Project Manager Tom Dunscombe said the project will provide at least 2,500 jobs. As of December, just over 200 jobs have been created.
"With the earlier BART administration, there were a lot of promises made that are not being met and there is no way they will be," said Robert Raburn, a BART board member who tired to kill the connector project soon after he was elected in 2010. "I came along just a little bit too late in the process to have that kind of impact, so my goal now is to live with it and make sure we get the deliverables promised."
In doing so, Raburn said he has steadfastly studied the monthly job and construction reports produced by Flatiron/Parsons, the contractor that won the bid to design and build the connector.
Raburn said he's making sure the jobs promised are created and that they are filled by workers from Oakland and the four Bay Area counties BART operates in. Those are the requirements BART must meet under an agreement it made with labor groups to win support for the project.
While critics continue to cringe when they see the foundations of the connector being installed, BART officials said it was time to move past the debates.
"These arguments have been made in public, the political bodies have listened to that, they have approved the project and local people are working," he said. "We recognize that for any type of project there will be critics, but reasonable minds can disagree."