Over the past year and a half I have learned about the proposal from AC Transit to install a “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) program to connect San Leandro to Oakland to Berkeley. We are now near the end of the review period for the environmental impact statement/report (EIS/R) on the project. (You can read the EIS/R at www.actransit.org/news/articledetail.wu?articleid=42622c20.)
On June 15 there were three opinion pieces in the Daily Planet, all in support of the project. None of these articles gave a description of the project. I doubt that most Berkeley residents who will be affected by this proposal are aware of it. At the meetings I have attended, most of the positive comments have come from people who belong to specific advocacy groups and live at a distance to the project. Most of the people with concerns come from the neighborhoods that will be directly affected by it. The comment period on the EIS/R expires at the beginning of July, so if you want to have any input, you need to do it now.
First, everyone needs to understand the current plan for BRT. The first stage will be to inaugurate the “Rapid Bus” system on Telegraph Avenue and on into downtown. These Rapid Buses will make limited stops and will have the ability to change a traffic signal from red to green as they approach an intersection with a light to ease their way down the road. There is already a “Rapid Bus” route along San Pablo that has been very well received.
Once the rest of the money is raised (estimated at $330 to $400 million), AC Transit plans to modify Telegraph Avenue by taking the two middle lanes for an exclusive bus lane in each direction, separated from the other lanes by a curb, add stations every third of a mile, remove street parking as needed at each station location, and shift all other traffic into the remaining one lane each way—all cars, trucks, “Rapid Bus,” local bus service and emergency vehicles. The BRT will run from near the downtown Berkeley BART station on Shattuck, run through the Southside neighborhood and on to Telegraph Avenue (exact route to be determined), and proceed down Telegraph to Broadway in downtown Oakland, turn east on 14th Street, and continue to one of two alternative BART stops in San Leandro.
If you look at the EIS/R without first putting on rose-colored glasses, you will notice some marked deficiencies in the analysis. The EIS/R looks at every conceivable impact of the project except for the impact of this system on the residential neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed BRT route. At this time Telegraph Avenue carries approximately twice the amount of traffic that is carried by College Avenue Removing one traffic lane in each direction will be like having Telegraph Avenue volume traffic drive on a street the size of College Avenue In addition, since the BRT buses will speed down the middle two lanes of the road, left turns will be curtailed at most intersections. When the traffic on Telegraph Avenue backs up, many drivers will be sorely tempted to make a right turn at the next intersection and cut through the neighborhood on the first street they encounter. AC Transit says they can mitigate all the impacts of this project, but so far I have not heard how they intend to solve this problem. Their report shows all sorts of lovely before and after pictures of what the streets along the route will look like after BRT is built. The problem is that these pictures show only two or three cars, which is not representative of realistic traffic volume. The solution in the EIS/R to the removal of approximately 150 parking spaces along Telegraph Avenue at the station locations is to move this parking to the adjacent side streets by installing parking meters, presumably in front of homes.
The BRT system is being sold as a way to get many more people to ride the bus. The ride will be shorter, and the increased congestion will encourage car drivers to abandon their vehicles and take the bus. What AC Transit has failed to acknowledge is that the Berkeley to Oakland to San Leandro corridor is already served by many bus lines and BART and will soon get the Rapid Bus. The vast majority of riders on the BRT will be people who switch from BART or another bus line, not from people who are driving. If you are going where the BRT goes, you can already get there by public transportation. Speakers at the meeting last night suggested that a better way to get more people to ride would be to lower fares and/or stop buying any more Van Hool buses.
The first meeting I attended about BRT a few years ago praised this system as being a low cost substitute for a rail system. BRT supporters point out how successful BRT systems have been in other cities in the United States and abroad. But they fail to acknowledge that we already have a rail system (BART) that works well and we don’t need a substitute. I think that AC Transit would serve the community better if it would design its service to compliment the BART system what we already have rather than build a system that will compete with it.
We can have almost all of the advantages of the BRT system without spending the estimated $400 million it would cost by just implementing the “Rapid Bus” system. AC Transit lays this comparison out well by listing the advantages of “Rapid Bus”, called “No-Build alternative” on page 4-62 of the EIS/R and the disadvantages of the BRT “Build” alternative on pages 4-63 to 64.
As long as I have lived here, the goal for transportation planning in Berkeley has been to get traffic out of the neighborhoods and concentrate it on the major roads. The BRT plan for Telegraph Avenue does just the opposite. It allows buses to take over most of Telegraph Avenue, the main north-south transportation corridor between Berkeley and Oakland, and drive the rest of the traffic onto the streets in the adjacent neighborhoods.
Finally, the argument is made that we need to build the BRT because if we don’t, we will lose this money. What ever the local communities and AC Transit decide to build today will shape the way this part of the East Bay looks like in 2025 and on. This is an extremely important decision. I think that using this money to build this inflexible, neighborhood destroying limited transit corridor will be a terrible waste of taxpayer money. From the analysis contained in the EIS/R, we would reap almost all the benefits predicted just by using the “Rapid Bus” stage alone. I would much rather not spend the money for the fully implemented BRT system than to spend it with the damage I foresee it causing. I hope that the decision between the “Build” and “No Build” alternatives will be made for the benefit of all the community and not just for the benefit of AC Transit.
Mary Oram is resident of Berkeley’s Willard neighborhood.