Transportation Commission Passes Rapid Bus Plan

Tuesday February 24, 2004

Having successfully navigated the potential roadblocks at Berkeley’s Transportation Commission, AC Transit’s controversial plan to keep its buses from getting bottlenecked on Berkeley’s streets is now set for environmental review. 

But before the bus agency begins its formal Environmental Impact Review (EIR) study of the impacts of overhauling Berkeley’s streetscape—including possible elimination of two lanes of car traffic on much of Telegraph Avenue and banishing cars altogether from the three blocks closest to campus—the Transportation Commission proposed some conditions to placate nervous neighbors and merchants. 

At a packed public hearing Thursday, the commission voted unanimously to request that AC Transit perform additional traffic studies before implementing any proposal that eliminates car access. 

Five years in the works and at least four years from completion, AC Transit is developing a Bus Rapid Transit System from Berkeley to San Leandro, funded by regional bond money and federal grants, that promises faster service, fewer stops and a drastically different street environment for Shattuck and Telegraph avenues. The proposed route would run east from the Downtown Berkeley BART to Telegraph, then on to Oakland and San Leandro. 

AC Transit plans to study a variety of options that include ripping out the median on Shattuck Avenue to build two dedicated bus lanes and 80-foot bus stations on major city streets. Another proposal is to revert the now one-way Durant Avenue back to two-way, and then pair a dedicated bus lane on that street with a similar one on Bancroft Way. Most controversial is 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. 

A more modest version of the Bus Rapid Transit plan has already come to San Pablo Avenue. By installing “smart” traffic signals that give buses priority, cutting the number of stops and providing real-time arrival information, the corridor has gained 20 percent more riders and cut commute times, according to AC Transit Project Manager Jim Cunradi. 

Those same improvements are already set for Telegraph and Shattuck, but AC Transit wants to study more ambitious plans they estimate would cut ten minutes off the commute between Berkeley and downtown Oakland, as well as increase ridership 30 to 40 percent. 

Telegraph Avenue neighbors and merchants complain that the more ambitious plans—especially the dedicated bus lanes—will choke car traffic on Telegraph, divert many drivers through residential streets, and harm businesses along the three blocks closest to the UC Berkeley campus. To alleviate those concerns, the Transportation Commission authorized the formation of a subcommittee on the project to include neighbors, merchants and AC Transit officials, as well as a study to see if better bus service equaled fewer cars on Telegraph Avenue. 

“This is an attempt to show the community we’re not going to run them over,” said commission chair Dean Metzger.  

And while AC Transit Project Manager Cunradi said that it would be “tougher” for his agency to complete the project with the added mitigations, “we’ll do it.” 

Though the two-county transportation agency is in charge of the project itself, Berkeley maintains power over its streets, giving it a veto power over any AC Transit proposal. The city does, however, have incentive to cooperate with AC Transit. In addition to faster bus service, the project offers the city a free Environmental Impact Report to study considerations outlined in its Southside Plan. 

The environmental review is scheduled for completion by next winter. 

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. ›