Public Comment

Commentary: Taxing Us $396,000 to Telemarket to Us

By Michael Katz
Tuesday September 11, 2007

Imagine Berkeley’s City Council inadvertently pouring fuel on a burning controversy by granting almost $400,000 to an advocate for one side. Worse, imagine the money going to the dispute’s less popular side, in a “sole-source,” no-bid contract (the kind the Pentagon signs with Halliburton). And, worst of all, paying them to pester Berkeley residents with telemarketing calls and uninvited house visits. 

That’s the scenario lurking behind tonight’s Council item 29, a contract to promote the “Travel Choice—Berkeley” program. 

The underlying controversy is AC Transit’s proposed Bus “Rapid” Transit (BRT) route in Southside and downtown. BRT wouldn’t actually make buses much more rapid—AC Transit already took its best shot at that on June 24, when it gave us the promising new 1R Rapid Bus line. But BRT would certainly slow down everyone else, by removing half the lanes from Telegraph Ave. and other streets. 

The opponents include, not surprisingly, almost everyone around the proposed BRT route. Downtown and Telegraph merchants overwhelmingly oppose AC Transit’s lane grab. So do thousands of their customers and neighbors, who’ve signed petitions against it at Moe’s and Caffe Strada. 

Tonight’s agenda item is a $396,000 city contract for the Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC). This Oakland group is a busy advocate for AC Transit’s BRT plan, having received a major grant to promote BRT in East Oakland. TALC’s Berkeley contract involves encouraging “walking, bicycling, transit use, and ridesharing.” 

Everyone favors those automobile alternatives, but subsidizing a booster of the controversial BRT proposal seems an unwise move for elected officials. Even more unwise are the contract’s specified activities: “telephone outreach during weekday evenings and weekends, as well as door-to-door, in-person outreach.” In other words, telemarketing calls and uninvited knocks on the door. 

How much do you enjoy those dinnertime interruptions? Now imagine learning that the fresh-faced college student on your phone, waxing on about the wonders of buses and biking, has been paid to disturb you by your elected officials, using your regional tax dollars. 

The contract, I should clarify, says nothing about promoting BRT. But it specifically targets residents living within a half-mile of BART stations or “the Telegraph and San Pablo corridors.” TALC’s idealistic young telemarketers and canvassers will be sorely tempted to abuse these calls and visits to propagandize for BRT. 

I’m not out to demonize TALC, a well-intentioned group that’s achieved some good things. I served on a nonprofit’s board for years with its executive director, and know him as a highly effective organizer. 

But TALC is dead wrong in cheerleading for this BRT route, a $400 million boondoggle that would pay AC Transit to basically duplicate the adjacent BART tracks. 

Our city should not be lavishly subsidizing the wrong dog in this fight. BRT has only a tiny number of supporters in Berkeley. They’re an energetic group, whose bylines keep popping up in these pages. And they’ve used some outsized connections to postpone the AC Transit proposal’s inevitable demise. Even so, BRT is so radioactive that not one City Councilmember has (to my knowledge) endorsed it. 

If the city wants to promote the general, consensus goal of transit usage, it could competitively bid out a contract to professional consultancies that have no direct stake in the BRT controversy. Bidders might include, among other examples, San Francisco’s highly regarded Nelson/Nygaard group. 

Nelson/Nygaard very capably conducted Berkeley’s Transportation Demand Management study, and is now completing a Berkeley transportation mail survey. Its staffers are professional enough to avoid mixing planning services with issue advocacy. 

Most importantly, if the city wants to coax residents out of their cars, it shouldn’t be harassing us with telemarketing calls or visits. No one should be subsidizing such invasions of our privacy—least of all taxpayers ourselves. 

The city should choose less intrusive methods, like an attractive mailed brochure. That’s something city staff clearly knows how to do well, even without expensive outside consultants. Having once volunteered with staff to create a city mailing to promote bicycle safety, I’d guess that writing, design, printing, and mailing could all be done for way under $396,000. 

Look again at that fee. Assuming the targeted neighborhoods include some 6,500 households (an educated guess), TALC’s contract would pay it a whopping $61 per contacted home. 

Heck, I’d be willing to step up to the plate again. I’d gladly write about the virtues of straphanging, biking, unicycling, or even backwards walking. Let’s say $1 for my fee, and well under $96,000 for production and postage. 

The leftover $300,000 could subsidize my European travel budget for life. Then I could tell you about how efficient, attractive transit really ought to work.  

Here’s a preview from my self-financed summer research in Copenhagen and Berlin: Imagine buying advance transit tickets at your convenience, for about $2-$4 a ride. Punch your own ticket when you board, and you could transfer to absolutely anything for the next 90-120 minutes: any regional bus, BART, or even Caltrain. And those trains would run once every two minutes. 

To make automobile alternatives truly mainstream, that’s the level of service, integration, and convenience we need. For now, we need to invest our pennies efficiently, and to avoid provoking public backlash. 

Quashing AC Transit’s wasteful $400 million sideshow is an excellent intermediate step. Stopping TALC’s $400,000 sweetheart deal to harass us with telemarketing is the obvious first step. 


Michael Katz is a Berkeley civic watchdog and freelance writer. Thanks to Merrilie Mitchell and Barbara Gilbert for sniffing out Item 29 and its background.