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Bus Lane Plans Provoke Telegraph Neighborhood

Friday January 30, 2004

Telegraph Avenue neighbors and merchants packed a Planning Commission meeting Wednesday to protest proposals to speed up buses from downtown Berkeley all the way to San Leandro by eliminating some traffic lanes for motorists on Telegraph Avenue and turning the three northernmost blocks of the street into a car-free, bus-only pedestrian mall. 

“This would be the end of the world as we know it. Telegraph would look like a Greyhound Station,” said Ken Sarachan, owner of Rasputin Music, who along with other leading Telegraph merchants—including the owners of Cody’s Books, Moe’s Books and Amoeba Music—opposed banishing cars from Telegraph north of Haste Street. 

Five years in the works and at least four years from completion, AC transit is developing a Bus Rapid Transit System, funded by regional bond money and federal grants, that promises faster service, fewer stops and a drastically different streetscape for Shattuck and Telegraph Avenues. 

To avoid Berkeley bottlenecks, AC Transit plans to study a variety of options that include ripping out the median on Shattuck Avenue to build two dedicated bus lanes, 80-foot bus stations in the middle and beside major city streets, two-way dedicated bus lanes on Bancroft Way, two-way traffic on Durant Avenue and, most controversial, a pedestrian-transit mall on Telegraph from Bancroft to Haste Street and the elimination of two car lanes on Telegraph south of Dwight Way to make room for dedicated bus lanes. 

The system, AC Transit officials said, would guarantee buses every five minutes during rush hour, instead of the current 15 and cut 10 minutes off the commute time from UC Berkeley to Downtown Oakland and ultimately to the Bay Fair Bart station. Those improvements would make service more appealing to thousands of riders who commute by car between along the route which already constitutes 20 percent of all AC Transit passengers, said AC Transit Board Member Greg Harper. 

“We’ve learned the key to get more riders onto the system is to look at the routes that have the most riders and make them fast,” he said, adding that a less ambitious project along San Pablo Avenue had increased ridership and reduced riding time by 20 percent.  

By law, the Planning Commission could only offer AC Transit suggestions on which options to study in their upcoming Environmental Impact Report due out at the end of the year. Final suggestions will come next month from the Transportation Commission. But while AC Transit is in charge of the project, the agency’s project manager, Jim Cunradi, said Berkeley will have the final say since it controls traffic flow on its streets. 

Most Telegraph neighbors and merchants said they want the status quo, fearing better bus service would send car commuters through residential streets to avoid increased congestion on Telegraph. 

“Ashby is a parking lot, College is a parking lot. The goals are great, but we need to quantify the impact of lost car lanes on the neighbors,” said John Caner, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association. 

The hot-button issue remains the plan to transform the northern three blocks of Telegraph into a virtually car-free pedestrian mall with two-way bus traffic. Despite repeated assurances from AC Transit that delivery trucks and motorists dropping off used books and music at Telegraph shops would still be allowed, merchants argued that without car access many customers would shun their businesses. 

AC Transit officials offered no drawings and gave no sense of the ambiance envisioned for the car-free mall. 

The route would run east from the Downtown Berkeley BART to Telegraph, then on to Oakland and San Leandro. All plans for Shattuck include opening two lanes for buses, with one plan calling for elimination of left turn lanes for cars, another eliminating the barrier between diagonal street parking and traffic lanes and a third eliminating diagonal parking spaces altogether. 

On the southside, one plan calls for two-way bus traffic on Bancroft, two-way car traffic on Durant and the pedestrian/transit mall on Telegraph. A second proposal keeps the mall but leaves Bancroft and Durant as one-way streets. Two other options would forsake the mall—permitting cars to share the street beside a dedicated bus lane—with one plan putting two-way bus traffic on Bancroft and two-way car traffic on Durant and the other keeping both one-way but with dedicated bus lanes. 

The 80-foot bus stations, built so wheelchair users can enter buses without a ramp, would be located on the sides of Bancroft and in the middle of Telegraph. 

Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn said the proposals basically reflect what the city calls for in its recently completed Southside Plan, except that the plan didn’t envision two-way car traffic on Bancroft. 

Funding for the project remains uncertain. AC Transit has $23 million at its disposal from Ballot Measure E, but is counting on an additional $65 million from a March ballot initiative to raise Bay Bridge tolls to $3 to fund local transit projects. 

A defeat, “would definitely be a hit for the project,” Cunradi said.