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Transit future could become ‘Light rail with rubber wheels’

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Friday December 21, 2001

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, AC Transit buses could shoot down Telegraph Avenue from the UC Berkeley campus into downtown Oakland in their own, dedicated lanes. 

Passengers would wait in computerized bus shelters, which would provide up-to-the minute details on scheduled arrivals. They would pre-pay for the ride in the shelter, so when the bus arrived, there would be no back-up behind the drivers’ fare box. 

Overall, the transit time between Berkeley and Oakland would decrease by as much as one-third. 

“We like to think of it as light-rail with rubber wheels,” said Stuart Cohen, director of the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition.  

AC Transit officials, transportation activists and regional planning agencies have been kicking around this idea for a few years now, but on Wednesday it came one step closer to reality. 

That’s when funding for the project – as well as two others that will serve Berkeley residents – was approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in its 2001 Regional Transportation Plan.  

Berkeley residents, members of the City Council and transportation advocates applauded the MTC for increasing funding for mass transportation. 

However, many of the same people are steaming over the amount of money awarded to two large projects – a fourth bore for the Caldecott Tunnel and a BART extension to San Jose.  

The MTC was created by the state legislature in 1970 to create long-range transportation plans for the nine Bay Area counties and to administer state and federal transportation funds for the region.  

The Regional Transportation Plan – which is comparable to a city’s general plan – determines transportation funding for the Bay Area over the next 25 years.  

Included in the 2001 plan was $151 million for the “Rapid Bus Transit” down the Telegraph corridor and on into San Leandro, $4 million for a similar – but less extensive – “enhanced bus service” on San Pablo Avenue and $1 million to subsidize bus passes for high-school and middle-school students from low-income families. 

According to Jon Twichell, AC Transit’s planning manager, the RTP money will be used to fund the first phase of the “Rapid Bus Transit” program, which will involve installing the bus shelters and the pre-pay system. 

Twichell said that another $150 million will have to be found in order to install dedicated bus lanes between Oakland and San Leandro. 

The first phase of the project should be completed sometime in the next three years, Twichell said, but despite political support for the plan, the agency could not be certain when the dedicated lanes would be ready. 

“It’s too early to give anything but a dart board answer,” he said. 

AC Transit, with the support of Berkeley and other agencies, is eyeing a different kind of service – called “enhanced bus” – for San Pablo Avenue. 

The enhanced bus service would offer similar shelters, fewer stops and a “signal preemption” system. If a stoplight is about to turn red, “signal preemption” allows the driver of a bus to keep it green for a few moments until the bus gets through. 

“The San Pablo corridor is the third or fourth most highly used in the AC Transit system,” said Councilmember Miriam Hawley, who used to represent parts of Berkeley on the AC Transit Board of Directors. “The buses down there are full most of the time.” 

“This should really speed things up down there.” 

Twichell said there are no immediate plans to put bus-only lanes similar to those planned on Telegraph onto San Pablo Avenue. 

The subsidy for low-income students will give free or reduced-price bus passes to students who qualify for federally subsidized lunch programs. The $1 million in MTC money will be matched by AC Transit, which brings the total budget of the program to $2 million for a two-year pilot program. 

School board member John Selawsky, who, along with Supervisor Keith Carson and Assemblymember Dion Aroner, lobbied the MTC on behalf of the program, said on Thursday that he expected that it would aid between 1,500 and 2,000 students from low-income Berkeley families. 

“Any low-income family with several kids has a hard time paying for bus passes,” said Hawley. “This’ll be a blessing for many Berkeley families.” 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that the City Council passed a unanimous resolution in support of the program, but had hoped that it would be funded for three, not two, years.  

“Once you have done a trial for three years, you get on a different track for state grants,” he said. He added that he thought there would be political pressure to extend the program for another year, so that there would be a better chance of making the program permanent. 

Worthington said that although he was pleased to see many mass transit – as opposed to highway – measures in the Regional Transportation Plan, there were several “appalling” projects approved as well. 

“It’s not a dramatic massive victory, because big chunks of the money are going to big projects like BART to San Jose, which is not a cost-effective way to spend transportation dollars,” he said. 

The MTC committed $4.3 billion to the BART extension, which will be built in two stages – to Warm Springs, a neighborhood south of Fremont, and then on to San Jose and Santa Clara. 

“BART to San Jose is one of the biggest boondoggles I’ve ever heard of,” said Charles Betcher, president of the AC Transit Bus Riders’ Union. 

“It’s very expensive, and it robs money from real, effective local transportation programs.” 

$185 million of the MTC money was earmarked for expansion of the Caldecott Tunnel – a move which dismayed many Berkeleyans. In fact the City Council unanimously voted to oppose the project. 

“It’s just going to encourage more people in Contra Costa county to drive their cars to Alameda County and San Jose,” said Worthington. “One-tenth of that amount of money spent on mass transit in that corridor could have moved just as many people.”