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Clash Deepens Over Bus Rapid Transit

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday July 27, 2007

The Berkeley Transportation Commission’s transit subcommittee debated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the Southside with Berkeley residents Wednesday. 

While BRT proponents emphasized the need for an improved transit service to better accommodate the high existing ridership, Southside neighbors dubbed it a “showpiece project” that would be catastrophic for the neighborhood. 

Proposed by AC Transit in cooperation with the Federal Transit Administration, the Bus Rapid Transit project promises to provide fast and frequent express bus service along an approximately 17-mile-long corridor extending from downtown Berkeley and UC Berkeley at the northern end, through downtown Oakland, and to San Leandro at the southern end. 

“When we envision Berkeley in 2030 and beyond we think Berkeley residents are going to get around in a very different way,” said Sarah Syed, Transportation Commission chair. “Berkeley residents are driving more often as the reliability of the bus has slowly declined. BRT is just one element of a city’s overall urban development.” 

According to the Bus Rapid Transit project draft environmental impact report, the project corridor is home to 260,000 residents and has some of the highest employment and residential densities in the East Bay. 

BRT changes would include dedicated transit lanes, stations with canopies and passenger amenities, advanced traffic signal priority for buses, and modern safety, security and communications systems. 

Overall, four BRT variations are under consideration through the Berkeley Southside area, which consists of Oxford/Fulton Street to Telegraph Avenue and Dwight Way. These alignments would connect downtown Berk-eley to Telegraph Avenue south of the UC Berkeley campus: 

• Two-way via Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue; 

• Two-way via Bancroft Way and one-way via Telegraph Avenue-Dana Street; 

• One-way via Bancroft Way-Durant Avenue and two-way via Telegraph Avenue; and 

• One-way via Bancroft Way-Durant Avenue and Telegraph Avenue-Dana Street. 

“What two-way does is give you a better balance.” said Peter Eakland, the city’s associate traffic engineer. “It will help increase mobility for people within the area.” 

Features welcomed by some in the small discussion groups included self-service, proof-of-payment fare collection as well as low-floor articulated buses which would stop at raised-platform stations. 

Some residents preferred the “No-Build Alternative” that includes “low-cost enhancements to bus services currently in operation in the study corridor and represents the best that can be done to meet the basic project purpose without a major investment.” 

Estimated to cost between $310 million and $400 million to design and construct, the BRT project has so far $102.03 million in committed funding. 

Some workshop participants said the project was not cost effective and demanded information on its funding sources. 

“At some point BRT is going to have a successfully passed EIR, yet the project is less than half-funded,” said Roland Peterson, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. “We want to know more about the construction schedules and the impacts.” 

Many objected that public participation in the project was being limited and called for a more transparent process. 

“We were treated like 4-year-olds at the workshop,” said Berkeley resident Doug Buckwald. “We were scolded for expressing our opinions. This meeting is a perfect example of social engineering. BRT is a package of many different features. We have to take all of them or none of them. We should be able to make choices that are decent instead of wasting thousands of dollars on needless transit infrastructure.” 

“The whole workshop has been designed to allow public participation,” contended Syed. “We want to hear from the people.” 

Syed added that the final environmental document would be released by spring 2008. If approved, construction is scheduled to take place between 2009 and 2011. 

Some neighbors were worried that the service would result in loss of parking for merchants and increase traffic on congested streets. 

“We were given a lot of facts and figures on ridership, but I want to know how many parking spaces disappear on the Berkeley route,” said Berkeley Architectectural Heritage Association President Carrie Olson. “Parking removal will hurt businesses. Will AC transit mitigate any loss of parking?” 

Berkeley resident Steve Finacom asked whether AC Transit would provide any guarantees for its service. 

“I have lived in the neighborhood for many years and I commute by walking on Telegraph,” he said. “I have noticed that there is no congestion on Telegraph. The buses are moving fine.” 

Disabled People Outside Project activist Dan McMullen asked if AC Transit was doing a count on the number of people currently using rapid buses. 

“I have yet to see one blocked in traffic or one being full with people,” he said. 

“I want to know who will pay for the maintenance of the transit only lanes,” said Finacom. “Who will police them? Will there be any pedestrian amenities in a pedestrian transit zone?” 

Len Conly, a Berkeley resident, said that his group had come to the conclusion that congestion problems would not be solved by a temporary fix. 

“Congestion is going to increase no matter what,” he said. “We have to look at the future.” 

Calls for a transit system that would loop together AC Transit, BART and other Bay Area transit providers became a familiar refrain during the meeting. 

Syed said that the Transportation Commission was planning to return in September and hold two more workshops. After being reviewed by the Transportation Commission, the project would be handed over to the Planning Commission. The City Council would have final say on its approval.