Public Comment

Commentary: It’s Only Halftime for BRT Decision

By Alan Tobey
Tuesday April 08, 2008

Even though AC Transit began planning for Bus Rapid Transit 18 years ago, in Berkeley we’re still only about half way to deciding whether to build such a system in south Berkeley along with neighbor cities Oakland and San Leandro. 

Bus Rapid Transit would improve bus service on Telegraph Avenue and into the downtown by increasing speed, dependability and comfort compared to current buses and routes; it would follow existing bus routes to downtown Oakland and out International Boulevard to San Leandro. On most of its route it would use a dedicated lane to avoid competing traffic; and everywhere would employ green-light signal priority, proof-of-payment ticketing, and multi-door level loading from dedicated stations to meet its service goals. That BRT plan, in its general framework, has recently been endorsed in two city planning documents: the draft Downtown Area Plan sees it as key to the future of Downtown as an efficient transit hub, and the draft Climate Action Plan sees BRT as an important step in reducing dependence on the private automobile by providing better transit alternatives; both plans state the need for more complete information before making a decision. BRT in Berkeley has also been endorsed bthe 120 organizations making up the regional Transportation and Land Use Coalition, among which is the Sierra Club.  

Some citizens, however—who mostly are affiliated with business groups or southside neighborhood associations—have expressed concerns about potential negative impacts of such a BRT project. They point mainly to the need for dedicated lanes, and have stated their belief that losing an automobile lane on much of the route would potentially lead to net loss of parking, traffic gridlock on Telegraph and increased cut-through traffic in neighborhoods. In short they believe BRT would be bad for both business and residents, and they are skeptical about the purported benefits. 

AC Transit has been following the law in preparing a required environmental impact report. A draft document was completed early in 2007, and the public comment period ended last May. AC Transit now needs to prepare and release the Final EIR; this will more fully describe the specific project parameters, look in more detail at potential negative impacts, and more specifically describe potential mitigations that could eliminate or minimize potential problems. 

This months-long interim leaves the BRT evaluation process awkwardly at half-time: all of the negative opinions have been expressed, but none of the responses and proposed mitigations from AC Transit is yet available to consider. It’s no surprise that BRT opponents continue to express frustration, and tend to assume that their presumed problems can’t be solved; but the truth is that none of us can know fully until we see the final report. So, as with most planning processes in Berkeley, considerable patience is still required. 

Before AC Transit can complete the final EIR, the city of Berkeley must choose among the project possibilities that the agency has nominated for detailed study in the final document. The draft EIR laid out alternatives for BRT routes on upper Telegraph, in the downtown, and for the streets between; discussed lane-closure options; described multiple possibilities for station locations and configurations; and listed several other undecided parameters. From these possibilities, the city now needs to select its “preferred” choices—not yet whether or not to approve constructing the project, but only what to describe and study as the main scenario in the final EIR. 

Impatient opponents of BRT, however, have been lobbying the city as if this choice of a “preferred local alternative” in the new few months will be a vote on whether or not to build the project—but that is not the case. City commissioners and council-members cannot make such a choice until they have all the relevant information—and that information will only be available in the final EIR that will still require several more months to complete. 

Opponents are trying to pre-empt such a careful process by asking the City Council to select now a “no build” alternative for the final EIR to study, rather than select from the choices about what might actually be built. But such a “verdict first, evidence second” approach is entirely unhelpful. We will only learn if BRT is a good project for Berkeley after all the evidence is in—when we can carefully study the potential benefits, the potential negative impacts, and the potential mitigations for those negative impacts. So the city needs to deny the passionate requests to kill the BRT project before fully studying it—it needs to choose one of the “build” alternatives for the final EIR. 

On April 9, the city’s Planning Commission and Transportation Commission will hold a joint workshop to ask for any information or opinion relevant to BRT that has not already been submitted as comments in response to the draft EIR. That additional information will figure into discussions about the city’s choice of the BRT “local alternative” later this spring. The city is therefore going out of its way to hear all views and inputs—a desirable policy during this frustrating half-time before we can take decisive next steps. 


Alan Tobey is a member of Friends of BRT, a transit advocate group that has a adopted a “so far so good” view of the BRT project, but that is awaiting the rest of the evidence before deciding whether or not to mount a campaign for public support.