The only hearts and minds Bus Rapid Transit seemed to have captured during an emotional public meeting in Berkeley Thursday were those it already possessed.
The only audience applause during the two-hour session came after public speakers slammed the agency’s plans to establish a fast-moving bus service along a highly traveled East Bay corridor.
Jim Cunradi, AC Transit’s BRT project manager, came to Berkeley to speak to a combined meeting of the city’s Transportation and Planning commissions and the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.
Bus Rapid Transit is a less costly alternative to light rail and subway systems, and increasingly popular in cities around the world.
But the system’s typical reliance on dedicated lanes—meaning the loss of existing car lanes—and its potential to trigger legal thresholds aimed at stimulating high-density development seemed the biggest worries to many of the speakers who turned out to have their say.
Thursday’s session was a preliminary discussion designed to ready commissioners and citizens to register official comments as the project moved through the environmental review process.
The agency’s board of directors officially selected the main route in a resolution passed on Aug. 2, 2001, and the plan has been in the works ever since as the agency has worked with the state, county and cities in refining the details.
As now formulated, the final results are included in the draft environmental impact report, the critical document which must be approved before the project can move forward.
That document was released on May 4, triggering a 60-day public comment period during which individual and governments may weigh in with comments and critiques that the agency must address in the project’s final environmental impact report (EIR).
Thursday night’s meeting wasn’t a formal hearing, but speakers had plenty to say, with the commissioners generally supportive, though some cautiously so, while most of the public came armed with edged words.
Supporters often endorsed the system citing the need to take prompt action to reduce global warming by cutting down on the car exhausts that comprise the largest share of America’s greenhouse gas output.
One difficulty for both sides was the lack of a definitive plan for the route’s passage through the city. Yes, buses will travel on Telegraph, but will they move in a dedicated lane or lanes, or will they share the road with cars?
And yes, buses will make a loop down to Shattuck Avenue, but will the travel on Bancroft Avenue be limited to only buses? And what of Shattuck Avenue, where the DAPAC is thrashing out alternatives that include dedicated lanes and the possible closing of the eastern half of the avenue’s split between Center Street and University Avenue?
The first two public speakers were avid fans of BRT, Leonard Cony and Steve Geller, members, like Transportation Commissioners Rob Wrenn and Wendy Alfsen, of Friends of BRT, and both advocates of dedicated BRT-bus-only lanes.
The criticism began with the third speaker, Sharon Hudson, who questioned the closing of the northern end of Telegraph Avenue to car traffic and said that “the more people know about it (BRT), the less they like it.”
Mike Friedrich took up the pro-BRT flame, offering the enthusiastic endorsement of Livable Berkeley, a group that lobbies hard for “smart growth” projects.
Former AC Transit and BART director Roy Nakadegawa joined win the praise, declaring BRT “one of the most cost-effective ways to encourage more transit use.”
Mark Lowe, a Hillegass Avenue resident, said he was concerned both because AC Transit had limited its direct contacts with individual households to those living within 300 feet of the proposed route, and because the project could have a “huge impact:” on his neighborhood as frustrated drivers sought other ways to travel in the popular Telegraph Avenue neighborhood.
Charles Siegel, member of Friends of BRT, lauded the system as a means for more efficient travel through the East Bay, and suggested that legitimate concerns of Telegraph area residents should allow for at least some through traffic on the avenue.
Doug Buckwald began by twice asking for a show of hands, first of those who wanted to stop global warming and second, of those who took mass transit to the meeting. There were dramatically fewer the second time around, including those of many of the strongest BRT supporters.
Buckwald noted the opposition of San Leandro’s mayor to dedicated BRT land and asked why bus riders would support the expenditure of still more funds on the unpopular Van Hool buses that AC Transit has been purchasing, and which are depicted in the illustrations the agency provides of the proposed BRT line.
Other speakers questioned whether BRT would make a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.
And throughout the public’s portion of the meeting, only opponents were applauded.
Meanwhile, AC Transit says it already has commitments for $102.5 million of the $310 million to $400 million needed to build the system, as well as strong support from a variety of agencies.
Berkeley residents will have their chance to weigh in officially when AC Transit holds its local public hearing on June 14 at the North Berkeley Senior center, 1901 Hearst Ave.
Events begin with an open house starting at 5:30 p.m. featuring exhibits and the opportunity to speak with officials, followed by the hearing itself at 7 p.m.
Anyone may speak at the hearing, and the agency is legally obligated to respond in the final version of the EIR.