BRT Runs into Unexpected Delay in the Heart of Oakland

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday January 22, 2008

Posted Thurs., Jan. 24—Full implementation of AC Transit District’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line ran into a potential chokepoint Wednesday night when dismayed district board members learned that the planned bus-only lanes may not be possible in a 1,000-yard stretch in the heart of Oakland.  

At issue is the 12-lane expressway that currently runs over the 12th Street dam that divides Lake Merritt from the Kaiser Convention Center, separating East Oakland from downtown. 

The problem involves Oakland’s upcoming Measure DD restructuring of the 12-lane expressway, where normal speeds currently go above 40 miles per hour into a slower, six-lane city road. 

If it’s not resolved, a civil and traffic engineer hired by the City of Oakland said the problem could—in the worst case scenario—cause traffic delays of two minutes or more in that single stretch during peak commute hours when BRT is eventually put in place. 

“That is enough of a delay to destroy the entire purpose of rapid transit,” AC Transit Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan (At Large) told Oakland officials on Wednesday. “I don’t know where we go from here.” 

As proposed by AC Transit officials, BRT would operate on two dedicated, bus-only lanes carved out of the existing Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard/E. 14th Street and running from UC Berkeley, through Oakland, and into San Leandro. Within those dedicated lanes, special AC Transit buses would be able to run free of auto traffic. 

The proposal has run into potential roadblocks at the two far ends of the system. In San Leandro, city officials have balked at setting up bus-only lanes in the narrow stretch of E. 14th Street that runs through the city’s downtown section, and AC Transit officials have been working with them to carve out an alternate solution acceptable to both sides.  

On Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, a loose coalition of merchants and residents has been actively opposing BRT’s proposed changes for months. Until this week, however, problems had not appeared publicly in Oakland. 

Oakland Measure DD Project Manager Joel Peter told transit officials on Wednesday that Oakland project engineers and planners had been working for months to reconcile bus-only lanes over the 12th Street dam with Measure DD’s goals of traffic slowdowns in the area and creation of a park at the west end of Lake Merritt, with no success. 

“Everything we’re doing involves balance,” Peter said, adding that traffic engineering studies showed that if Oakland dedicated one of the three downtown-bound lanes to buses, the resulting backup of cars around the Alameda County Courthouse would eventually reach back to the eastern entrance to the 12th Street exchange, causing the buses to be delayed in entering the exchange, and defeating the whole purpose of the dedicated lanes. 

“How can we ask Berkeley to give dedicated lanes to BRT and not Oakland?” a frustrated Ward 2 Director Greg Harper (Emeryville, Piedmont, Berkeley) told Peter. “All the buses are going to bunch up here. We were told by Oakland that AC Transit was going to be in the loop on these decisions. I don’t know why all of a sudden, when space is available, we can’t get a lane when we’ve been planning for one for seven years.” 

Peter said that Measure DD planners were willing to look at any alternate solutions, and the issue is certain to come up at the end of this week at a regularly-scheduled transportation planning meeting between city and transportation agency officials. The Measure DD Environmental Impact Report is scheduled to be published on Friday of this week or the following Monday, with consideration by the Oakland Planning Commission on Feb. 13.