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City Council Looks At Process for Bus Rapid Transit Approval

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday September 18, 2007

Dedicating one traffic lane for fast buses for much of the 16 or so miles between San Leandro and downtown Berkeley will get people out of their polluting vehicles and into speedy, comfortable, ecological public transport, says the AC Transit Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal. 

Opponents of the idea—many of whom like those BRT features that don’t remove automobile lanes—say dedicated bus lanes will cause a traffic nightmare in Berkeley, killing business on Telegraph Avenue and cramming autos into one very slow line of traffic. Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it will increase them, with traffic crowding onto neighborhood streets and other already-congested traffic corridors, opponents argue. 

Praised by Mayor Tom Bates, a member of the AC Transit Board, BRT is before the City Council today (Tuesday), not for a vote on the $300-$400 million proposal itself, but for a process decision. Bates wants the council to agree that the BRT will be discussed by the Transportation and Planning commissions and their staffs and then come back to the council for a public hearing and decision in early 2008. 

When it comes to a vote, the council could approve the full BRT plan with dedicated bus lanes, cherry-pick from the proposal, or turn down the project altogether. 


The plan 

BRT is aimed at linking the heavily used transit corridors from San Leandro down East 14th Street, International Boulevard and Telegraph Avenue, ending up and turning around in downtown Berkeley, the destination of thousands of UC Berkeley students and university and downtown workers. 

By using dedicated bus lanes, the system imitates light-rail transport, with four- to five-minute intervals projected in service during peak periods. The draft environmental impact report says BRT will increase bus ridership along the targeted corridor from 56 to 76 percent. 

Some of the elements proposed by the plan include spacing the rapid bus stations farther apart than the local stations and using transit signal priority technology, where the green phase of the traffic light is extended for the BRT buses. Both of these features are already in place on Telegraph and San Pablo avenue rapid buses.  

The proposal also includes installing fare machines at stations, initiating pre-paid tickets with spot verification and providing real time transit information at bus stops. Low-floor buses with multiple doors would be used, allowing people to enter and exit more quickly. 


BRT needed 

In his memo to the council, Bates says the BRT “is a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable and cost-effective urban mobility” emulating light rail “at a fraction of the cost.” The mayor’s office did not return calls for further comment. 

The Northern Alameda County Group of the Sierra Club is among the BRT advocates. In a May 2007 resolution, the group lauded BRT for creating “an increase in transit ridership by providing a viable and competitive alternative to private automobile travel” and for providing a way to mitigate the growth of UC Berkeley’s and Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s workforce and student populations. 

On its website, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition says it supports BRT because it doubles bus frequency in the corridor, increases average speed from 10 mph to 17 mph, reduces AC Transit's operating costs by increasing ridership and can later be electrified for use by light rail and/or electric trolley buses 


Slow down 

Telegraph Avenue area Councilmember Kriss Worthington said in a phone interview that the city needs to study the full range of possible transit improvements before rushing into an expensive system whose outcome is unknown.  

“Why rush, rush, rush?” he asked. “There are an awful lot of question marks.” 

The first order of business would be “doing things to create a mode shift,” Worthington said, especially putting in place eco-passes for Telegraph area workers through which the state and employers in the transit corridor would subsidize the buses in an initial phase. 

Worthington points to the success of the Class Pass, through which all UC Berkeley students pay a fee with their registration and all can ride the bus without additional cost. City of Berkeley workers’ bus passes are funded by the city. 

Worthington points to “woeful deficiencies” in the BRT proposal: there is no rapid connectivity planned between the rapid buses on Telegraph and San Pablo avenues, he said, noting that many workers in downtown Berkeley live in the Richmond area. 

Before considering BRT, however, the city needs to study its impacts—will it really bring the new riders? What are the effects on businesses along Telegraph? What are the traffic impacts? Worthington said. 

Worthington also noted that the project is not funded, though Bates says in his council memo that funds are available through the Federal Transit Administration.  

According to AC Transit Spokesperson Clarence Johnson, “Nothing is secured at this point; we’re still at the beginning stages.” 

Responding to questions on whether the riders will jump on board, Johnson said it’s happened in Los Angeles, Brazil and Australia and will happen in Alameda County as well. 

Johnson argued for necessity: “The streets are jammed; the freeways are jammed; we have to move away from the status quo,” he said. 

Critics have said they fear BRT will bring with it more intense development along its trajectory and Johnson did not disagree. “Transit-oriented development is the wave of the future,” he said, noting that otherwise there will be “sprawl from the ocean to the Sierras.” 

The Telegraph Merchants Association and the Willard Neighborhood Association have weighed in against BRT which includes a dedicated lane. The LeConte Neighborhood Association took a straw poll that came out against it. 

George Beier, former District 7 council candidate and member of the Willard Neighborhood Association steering committee, speaking for himself, told the Daily Planet, while he likes the idea of buying tickets at bus stops and boarding the bus on level with the curb, the dedicated bus lane “will snarl traffic,” he said. People will choose to take College Avenue, “which is pretty jammed up now,” he said. 

Greenhouse gas emissions will increase. “People will be sitting idle on Telegraph Avenue,” he said. 

If Bates’ council item is approved, the Transportation Commission will hold a workshop in October on the BRT proposal to identify “remaining issues and appropriate solutions.” Planning and transportation staff will take the recommendations and formulate them into a proposal which will go back to the Transportation Commission, then the Planning Commission and then back to the council for a public hearing and then finally for a decision in January. 

“We will abide by the decision you [in Berkeley] make,” AC Transit’s Johnson said.