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Marin Avenue Plan, Paratransit Changes on City Council Agenda By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday December 14, 2004

The City Council tonight (Tuesday) is scheduled to decide whether to shrink North Berkeley’ major east-west thoroughfare in half for motorists. 

Under a plan devised by Albany and Berkeley officials, Marin Avenue, the preferred route for many Berkeley hills residents to reach I-80, would be reduced from four lanes of traffic to two lanes, with bicycle lanes on each side of the street and a center turning lane. 

After a seven-year push from avenue neighbors, mostly in Albany, to slow traffic on the avenue, the Albany City Council voted unanimously last month to proceed with the plan for its section of Marin, from Stannage Avenue east to Tulare Avenue. 

If Berkeley chooses to join Albany, the project would extend four blocks further east to The Alameda. The current plan calls for re-engineering the avenue by the end of the summer for a one-year trial period at a cost to Berkeley of $41,000. The city is seeking grant money to pay for the project. 

In October, the Transportation Commission unanimously recommended the project to the council amid charges from opponents that they had not been properly notified of the commission’s public hearing. 

“Nobody knew about it,” said Zelda Bronstein, the president of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association, who questioned why city staff limited notices to the hearing to the 750 households within a block of Marin and provided the commission with summaries of constituent letters rather than the full correspondence. 

“This has really started a fuss,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. She plans to oppose the proposal after receiving more than 20 e-mails from constituents from her district in the North Berkeley hills who were concerned that their commutes would be slowed and that they were left out of the decision making process. 

Laurie Capitelli, who represents the affected streets, wouldn’t disclose his position, but said he thought the city had limited options after Albany, which encompasses most of Marin slated for the redesign, approved the plan. 

“What concerns me most is that so many people feel surprised about this,” he said. 

Heath Maddux, a Berkeley transportation planner, held that the staff acted according to procedure by sending notices only to residents who lived a block from the affected portion of Marin and defended the decision to summarize resident letters for the commission. 

“It was just seen as the most efficient use of the commission’s time,” he said. 

At its hearing in October, the 16 residents in attendance were evenly split on the plan. Supporters like Gary Amado said his two sons had been hit by cars when trying to cross the street. 

Opponents feared that motorists would congest neighboring side streets. 

Currently, cars travel an average of 31 mph on the avenue, which is zoned for 25 mph. From 2001 through 2003, there were 114 collisions on the section of the avenue encompassed by the plan, which was comparable to the statewide average of similar avenues, according to a report by Fehr & Pierce, a transit engineering firm. 

The report also concluded that the average rush-hour trip down Marin would increase by about 80 seconds with the reduced lanes, and reduce average speeds from 31 mph to 26 mph, not enough of a disincentive to push motorists onto side-streets. 

Responding to concerns from opponents, Maddux, who oversees the city’s bicycle boulevard program, has said that the city was working on developing standards to judge the success of the program after a one-year trial run.  

He said that Berkeley and Albany began working together on the plan two years ago. They are hoping to win grant money either from the California Air Resources Board or from Regional Measure B, which set aside money for local transportation projects. 

Also on the council agenda is a proposal to reduce staff costs to operate the city’s transit service for the elderly and disabled. Currently city staff accounts for 36 percent of the $453,000 program budget, an amount Housing Director Steve Barton called “unconscionably high.” 

With the backing of the commissions on aging and disability, Barton and city staff have proposed streamlining the city’s taxi scrip program to reduce staffing by one-half of a full time employee ($36,000). 

The new guidelines call for eliminating the sale of taxi scrip, which serves as taxi vouchers for the elderly and disabled. In its place, Berkeley Paratransit Services will establish income criteria; all eligible consumers will receive scrip free of charge, while new applicants will be excluded from the program if their income exceeds 30 percent of the Area Median Income. Current customers who earn more than 50 percent of AMI, about 85 in all, will be phased out of the program. 

Also, the city will stop selling subsidized East Bay Paratransit tickets and vouchers for paratransit vans, operated by Alameda County as well as tickets for local paratransit service Easy Does It. 

Applicants who meet the new income criteria will receive nine taxi scrip books worth $360 annually. Previously, consumers who must be over 70 or certified as disabled, could buy $40 taxi scrip books valued for $14. 

“A big piece of the high administration costs was selling the scrip,” Barton said. 

Maris Arnold, a former member of the Commission on Aging, opposes the plan. “Any reform should reduce more staff time and provide more services,” she said, noting that the new policy would limit recipients to nine books of scrip annually, less than one-quarter the amount they could purchase under the current rules.  

Councilmember Dona Spring, who uses a wheelchair, said she was inclined to support the proposal, but was concerned that some users wouldn’t use the vouchers they were given. 

“There’s no way to redistribute them if half the recipients haven’t used their vouchers,” she said.