About 75 people celebrated the launching of the Eco Pass Program in Civic Center Wednesday. City officials hope the free AC Transit bus passes will lure some of Berkeley’s 1,600 employees from their cars and ease downtown parking and traffic problems.
In June, the City Council approved the Eco Pass, modeled after a similar program in Santa Clara County, where large employers, such as IBM, Walmart and Hewlett Packard provide transportation passes for their employees. Berkeley is the first city to provide passes for city workers.
The program, approved on a one-year trial basis, will cost between $97,000 and $130,000.
“This is another step in untangling the city’s transportation and traffic problems,” City Manager Weldon Rucker told the celebrants, who were snacking on coffee and cake. “If we get more people to ride the bus to the downtown, it will be a tremendous relief to parking and traffic.”
Among the city employees attending the celebration, which was moved inside the lobby of the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center because of a heavy morning rain, were AC Transit and city officials including Mayor Shirley Dean and councilmembers Linda Maio, Miriam Hawley and Kriss Worthington. The four were able to combine two competing proposals last June, which allowed the speedy adoption of the Eco Pass Program .
“By working together we were able to get this wonderful program approved,” Worthington said.
Also in attendance were Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn, who first promoted the Eco Pass concept five years ago after reading a newspaper article about the Santa Clara County program.
Mayor Shirley Dean reminded the attendees that the Eco Pass is largely modeled on the UC Berkeley transit program for students known as the Class Pass, which has been in operation for the last two years.
“Our goal is to get an Eco Pass for everyone in Berkeley,” Dean said. “And if we get that done by next year we can come back and have an even bigger cake.”
City officials said if the Eco Pass Program is successful, it will be used as a model for large local employers.
“The next employer to ‘get on the bus’ should be the UC system,” said Wrenn, noting that UC Berkeley is the largest employer in the East Bay and if it provided passes for its employees the reduction in traffic and air pollution would be dramatic. “If the city of Berkeley can do it, UC certainly can.”
AC Transit Board Member Greg Harper, who represents Ward 2 - portions of east and south Berkeley, Emeryville and parts of Oakland – noted that Berkeley, the first city government to adopt a public employee transportation program, is once again on the cutting edge. He said Berkeley broke new ground 20 years ago when it first proposed a smoking ban in restaurants and again when it banned Styrofoam cups because of the material’s negative impact on the environment.
“People thought Berkeley was crazy but that thinking has entirely been reversed,” he said. “And here you are again reversing convention.”
Rucker said the success of the program remains to be seen but he is hopeful the pass will increase employee ridership by 25 percent the first year.
Maio asked the celebrants to raise their hands if they use public transportation – about five people did. She then asked how many among them will use the Eco Pass and about 40 people responded with raised hands.
Housing Department employee Marianne Graham, with her newly issued Eco Pass dangling from a chain around her neck, said the pass will make it much easier to use AC Transit.
“Just having the pass available at all times will make it easier to use,” she said. “There’s no waiting in line to buy a monthly pass or worrying about having the right change.”
Graham added the savings on parking, which costs an average of $12 per day, will be a further incentive.
City payroll employee Leo Reyes lives in Pinole and said he takes BART to work five days a week and uses AC Transit about three times a week to run errands.
“I never bring my car to work because there is no parking and the gridlock on Interstate 80 is terrible,” he said. “Using public transportation helps me save money, time and the earth.”
Hawley, who is a former AC Transit board member for Ward 1, said for the plan to be successful AC Transit will have to provide reliable service on the main transit corridors. “They will have to make sure there’s service where it’s needed,” she said.
Hawley added that the city will have to do its part by making the streets bus-friendly. She said methods like signal prioritization, extra lanes for buses and eliminating double parking would help the bus service become frequent and reliable.
Hawley said she is working to establish an official motto for the city’s Eco Pass Program based on a bumper sticker she once had on her car: “Ride the Damn Bus!”