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While Berkeley Boils Over Bus Rapid Transit, Neighboring Cities Give It Mixed Reviews

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday October 09, 2007

While the reaction to AC Transit’s ambitious Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal has not stirred up the sort of public controversy in Oakland and San Leandro that it has in Berkeley, interviews with city officials show that the transit district may have a way to go before the development of a BRT plan will win approval in those cities as well. 

City officials in San Leandro have already told AC Transit that the city would “most likely not support a fully dedicated bus lane from beginning to end” of the project in that city. 

AC Transit is proposing establishing a BRT line along the streets currently operating the district’s 1 and 1R lines, south down Telegraph Avenue through Berkeley and North Oakland into downtown Oakland, then along International Boulevard / East 14th Street to terminate either at the San Leandro or the Bayfair BART station. The BRT proposal includes establishing dedicated bus-only lanes down the middle of Telegraph and International/East 14th, as well as traffic lights timed to allow the immediate passage of buses in order to speed BRT buses along those corridors.  

According to the district’s environmental impact report on the project, BRT is proposed in order to improve transit service and better accommodate existing bus ridership, increase transit ridership by providing a viable and competitive alternative to auto travel, improve and maintain the efficiency of transit service delivery, and support local and regional cgoals to enhance transit-oriented development. It is the district’s major development project. 

AC Transit has proposed mixed-flow lanes—sharing BRT lanes with autos and non-BRT buses—in three areas of the project. In Oakland, non-dedicated lanes are proposed for Broadway between 11th and 20th streets as well as along 12th Street, as in runs between Lake Merritt and the Kaiser Convention Center. In downtown San Leandro, AC Transit has offered the city the option of operating dedicated BRT lanes or mixed-flow lanes. 

In other parts of the BRT project, including along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where contention over the proposal has been at its highest, mixed-flow lanes were not originally offered as an alternative. 

Public hearings on the BRT EIR concluded this summer, and transit district officials are currently involved in discussions with officials and city staff members in the three affected cities. 

“We’re taking suggestions for possible alterations from them, and trying to figure out how those can be accommodated into our final design plan,” said AC Transit Public Information Officer Clarence Johnson. 

The accommodations are crucial because once the EIR process is completed and the BRT design is finalized, since the plan involves major street developments, the project must go before City Council in each of the three East Bay cities for final approval. 

Already, San Leandro has turned thumbs-down on BRT bus-only lanes in its downtown. Last July, the San Leandro City Council directed the mayor and city staff to send a letter supporting only those BRT alternatives which provided for mixed BRT, regular bus, and auto use. 

Only a few years ago, San Leandro re-striped and put in significant streetscape improvements in its downtown E. 14th Street corridor, by far the most congested traffic area of the city. 

“Based upon the information in the draft EIR, council believed that dedicated BRT lanes would have significant impacts in the northern end of our city,” Public Information Officer Jane McCray of the San Leandro City Manager’s office said by telephone. “We’re concerned about the major impact the dedicated lanes would have on businesses along E. 14th street, particularly because it would necessitate the elimination of on-street parking. Since then, AC Transit officials have met with us to try to get a better understanding of our concerns and to possibly come up with alternatives we could live with.” 

McCray said that “perhaps” one accommodation might be to have the BRT dedicated lanes set down in “limited sections” in the San Leandro downtown area. 

Another area where BRT dedicated lanes would have a major effect is in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, where the city only recently made streetscape improvements in connection with the Fruitvale Transit District. At some times of the day between Fruitvale and 38th avenues, along the heavily congested International Boulevard, traffic has been at a virtual standstill because of the improvements. 

Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents the Fruitvale district and supports BRT, says he has been in negotiations with AC Transit officials about proposed changes to BRT in the Transit Village area adjoining the Fruitvale BART station. 

“Some of the business owners around 34th and 38th avenues had some concerns, particularly about where the buses are intended to stop, and we’re trying to work that out,” De La Fuente said by telephone. “We want to make sure that the impact on our area is beneficial. I’ve already been able to work out some of those concerns, and some of them, we are still working on. The good thing is that we have plenty of time to work this out.”  

In a letter sent to AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez, De la Fuente listed six “concerns” he had about BRT in the Fruitvale. On affordability, he wrote, “AC Transit already has some of the most expensive bus service in the Bay Area, and Oakland households have among the lowest incomes in the Bay Area. … The new Bus Rapid Transit service should a) be affordable to those who need it most and b) not do anything to increase the price of local service.” On the matter of service: “The level of service for both the BRT and feeder lines should be higher than what it is now at all hours of the day.” And on median landscaping: “The City/Redevelopment Agency has made a significant investment in the median strip on International Boulevard. The median provides for green public space and traffic calming. Any alterations the BRT project makes to the median should be at the expense of the East Bay BRT Project and should not result in any net decrease in public space and greenery in that immediate area.” 

In his letter to Fernandez, De La Fuente also said he had concerns about the impact BRT would have on congestion and the loss of parking along the Fruitvale-International Boulevard corridor. 

In a telephone interview, De La Fuente said that bringing rapid transit along International Boulevard is “essential” to the community, an “integral part” of both his and the city’s goal of bringing “transit-oriented development” to Oakland. But the council president said that it was “important to integrate AC Transit’s plans into what we already have.”  

In other parts of Oakland, city officials have either tried to re-write its streetscaping proposals to accommodate the proposed BRT, or else held up proposals altogether while waiting to see if BRT goes through. 

Stephanie Floyd Johnson, an economic development/redevelopment program manager with Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency, said that BRT’s proposal has affected city plans for four International Boulevard streetscape improvements south of the Fruitvale.  

“I won’t say I attribute all of the delay of those projects to AC Transit,” she said, “but the longer the city has waited to move forward with those projects, the more BRT has had an effect.” 

Johnson said that in the late ‘90s, Oakland allocated money for streetscape improvements in four “nodes,” in that area—40th to 44th avenues, 72nd to 75th avenues, 80th to 89th avenues, and 105th Avenue to the San Leandro border. Only one of those “nodes” was completed—the Durant Square area near the San Leandro border, where a median was put in along with other improvements. A median, along with landscape bushes and trees, was put in on International in the 80th to 89th avenue node, but completion of the project was stopped after AC Transit’s BRT proposal was introduced. 

“The city had plans for that area that would have improved pedestrian safety,” Johnson said, “including traffic calming measures, improved pedestrian traffic lights, and sidewalk bulbouts to make pedestrians more visible to vehicles, and to lessen the amount of street that they have to cross.” 

But Johnson said that the bulbouts, in particular, were not compatible with AC Transit’s plans for dedicated center bus lanes, and that after AC Transit expressed its concerns, “it made it difficult for the city to move forward to get additional funding to complete the projects. Because the bids were coming in higher than we expected, we had to supplement the city funds with other funding. We had been pursuing federal funds through the Metropolitan Transit Commission, but that’s when AC Transit began proposing BRT, which was not compatible with everything the city was proposing, and when your local transit agency is not in full support of your transit plans, it’s like waving an orange flag in front of the funders. The murkier the situation gets, the more the funders feel they should take a step back until the water clears. It’s difficult for the city to get a plan approved under those circumstances.” 

In addition, Johnson said Oakland held off on some of its streetscape improvement plans because part of the AC Transit BRT proposal is to also do streetscape improvement. “We decided it was better to wait to see what portion of their project was able to get funding,” she said. 

The city went through with the Fruitvale Transit Village improvements on International, according to Johnson, because the median width that the city placed in that area would accommodate a BRT dedicated center lane when and if such a lane is installed. 

Johnson said that meanwhile, the city has redesigned its four-node East Oakland plan to be consistent with AC Transit’s BRT. Those plans are currently being vetted by Caltrans and, if approved, would go out to bid by the end of the year. 

But BRT would be the death knell for at least one major portion of Oakland’s streetscaping project already completed in East Oakland. 

“It would pretty much take out the trees we’ve put in the median” from 80th to 89th avenues, Johnson said. “We would have to redesign that area to move some of the trees to the sidewalks.” 

Johnson said that the city funding for the International Boulevard streetscaping project is still in the budget, and “we’re still hopeful that the nodes will still happen.”