Public Comment

Commentary: Criticisms of BRT Workshop Are Unfair

By Fran Haselsteiner
Tuesday August 14, 2007

When I was editing books for a major, Washington D.C.-based environmental organization, there was always a chapter on public process. The basic process is that participants work together in small groups and then report back to the whole group. It operates on the principle that community members’ coming together to discuss the issues and develop consensus results in good community decisions. 

That was the intent of the Transit Subcommittee’s July 24 workshop on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the Southside. After an initial group discussion on obstacles to BRT, people would go into small groups to hear other community members’ views and discuss goals and issues. Afterward, one member from each small group would report to the whole group. This was not a public hearing with the usual comment period. It was a public workshop for discussion of the options proposed in the draft environmental impact report, not whether the BRT concept should be rejected out of hand. The meeting agenda was published in advance, and I should note that items cannot be added to agendas after distribution or at the meetings. The Transportation Commission used the same workshop format for a BRT Workshop on Downtown issues, which went off splendidly but received no press coverage.  

In his opinion published in the Planet last week, BRT opponent Doug Buckwald attacked the Transportation Commission’s chair, Sarah Syed, on her handling of the Southside workshop. Mr. Buckwald, who last year distributed anonymous flyers full of misinformation about BRT, came to the workshop with, in my opinion, a clear intent to sabotage the process at the outset, poison the meeting, and control the discussion. Employing his usual brand of bullying theatrics and obviously intending to enflame, he declaimed that the Transportation Commission was trying to get people out of their cars and was engaging in “social engineering.” In his column he restated pretty much verbatim what he said at the meeting. He and several other BRT opponents used up a lot of time in their unsuccessful attempt to derail the workshop.  

In fact, during the Southside meeting many important issues were raised, and AC Transit officials promised to follow up on questions they were not able to answer at the workshop. Despite the breakdown in civility the commission chair made every effort to treat all members of the public fairly and with respect to ensure that all who were present were able to participate.  

I’ll note that only two of the small groups were headed by city staff, not all of them, as Mr. Buckwald stated. Three groups were headed by volunteer commissioners, none of whom works for the city. A member of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition and two city staff members headed the other three. We did not use the meeting to express our own opinions. We heard from other community members and recorded their concerns. Mr. Buckwald did not participate. At my table the discussion focused on two business owners’ objections to BRT; we never got to the workshop questions. One merchant feared that her business would suffer if customers could not park directly in front of her store, and both rejected consideration of even a single transit lane. 

Indeed there are difficulties in shoehorning this system into an area not built to handle the traffic it now has and will have. That’s why we commissioners wanted to provide this opportunity, as well as others, for thoughtful discussion of the options proposed in the draft EIR. 

Many—if not most—of us can agree that one of Berkeley’s most significant problems is ever-increasing car congestion in the face of not only UC expansion but also global warming and the serious cancer risks caused by automotive emissions. As I have learned during my nearly eight years on the Transportation Commission, the most effective way to control traffic congestion is to get regular commuters to use transit. If BRT isn’t built, the available federal funding will go somewhere else, and probably not to transit. What assurances can opponents give us that the money will be available when things get bad enough? And can they provide evidence that improved transit will result in greater degradation of commerce on Telegraph Avenue? This has not happened in other cities where transit service has been upgraded with Bus Rapid Transit or light rail. 

Also during my tenure on the commission I have repeatedly heard that people will not use transit unless it is fast and convenient. BRT will accomplish that. Right now buses do not have the right of way; cars do. As a regular transit user I routinely experience six to eight cars’ passing the bus as it is attempting to leave a stop. BRT will give us low-emission buses providing more frequent, on-time service. Transit users don’t have to search for parking. With BRT and Translink we will finally have the connection from Downtown BART to the campus. BRT will provide a convenient way for people living in the neighborhoods along the Telegraph corridor to get to jobs and shops in downtown Berkeley, on Telegraph, and in downtown Oakland. The Draft EIR estimates that as many as 9,300 people may switch to transit as a result of BRT’s faster, more reliable service. The BRT project is, I hope, the beginning of a new transit system, one that can be built upon to provide truly fast and convenient transit. 

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, bus travel is poised to increase because buses “have the highest passenger-per-mile, per-gallon profile of any transportation mode. The group figures that buses provide 184 passenger miles of service per gallon of fuel and that carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by an average of 85 percent per passenger mile compared with people driving their cars solo.” And according to the city’s own statistics, 47 percent of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions are generated by transportation. 

I would like to remind readers that the BRT—not Rapid Bus—is part of our city’s adopted General Plan, policy fully vetted by the community in public meetings and adopted by the City Council. 

This is, purportedly, a progressive community, one with a high profile nationally. Change in response to the needs of the future requires us to put aside the assumptions of the past. If BRT fails here, what does that say about our community and our priorities? And how can we hope to meet the goal, set by voters when they passed Measure G, of reducing 80 percent of Berkeley’s greenhouse emissions by 2050? It is my hope that we all can adopt a cooperative, problem-solving approach to BRT as well as all the other issues so critical to our shared future. It’s in everyone’s best interest.  


Fran Haselsteiner has lived on Dwight Way since 1984 and has represented District 2 on the Transportation Commission for almost eight years.