Commissioners Hear BRT Fears, Praise; Plan More Discussions

By Richard Brenneman
Friday June 13, 2008 - 09:41:00 PM

The ongoing battle over bus rapid transit (BRT) smoldered anew when Berkeley’s planning and transportation commissions took their second joint look at the concept Wednesday night. 

Ultimately it will be up to city councilmembers to choose the locally preferred alternative (LPA) for the city’s portion of a bus corridor that will run from downtown Berkeley to the San Leandro BART station. 

AC Transit’s proposals to halve the number of traffic lanes along Telegraph Avenue, eliminate on-avenue parking spots and severely restrict options for left turns from side streets onto the heavily traveled avenue have generated the greatest heat. 

But supporters like Charles Siegel say the concerns of neighbors and merchants—“Their fears are fantasies”—would be resolved by mitigations offered by the transit agency in the project’s environmental impact report. 

Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options (BBTOP) has presented its own alternative to BRT, which the group has dubbed Rapid Bus Plus, and city transportation planner Karen Vuicich said their proposal would be considered by city staff as it develops a local alternative proposal. 

Also to be considered in addition to AC Transit’s BRT proposal will be a “no-build alternative,” she said. 

“Our overall goal is to provide the best information to the city council so that they can decide on an LPA,” Vuicich said.  

Meanwhile, AC Transit officials will study the BBTOP proposal, and staff will report back to the commission July 9 “with a clear description” of the Rapid Bus Plus proposal. 

Commissioner will hear and discuss a staff presentation focusing on the effects of all the alternatives in September, and the following month will discuss which alternative would be the best option for consideration by the council, but no vote will be taken, Vuicich said. 

Questioned by commissioner Harry Pollack about which proposal offered shorter times between buses, Vuicich and colleague Matt Nichols said the dedicated lane proposed as part of the BRT plan offered the shortest wait times, allowing for 12 buses per hour compared to a maximum of six without the bus-only lane. 

The most pointed questions came from the Planning Commission, while the transportation panel has more specialized familiarity with the subject at hand. 

Gene Poschman said he was unhappy that little attention seemed to have been given to the larger impacts of the BRT proposal. 

“One problem I’ve got is that underneath the economic development criteria are the two words ‘land use,’ which really could take several pages,” he said. 

And one term included in the staff glossary of bus-related terms particularly piqued his interest: Transit Village, a term which, if invoked under state law, can lead to taller buildings and greater densities than would otherwise be allowed under local ordinances. 

“Is Telegraph Avenue with or without BRT” eligible for the height and density bonuses?" he mused. “This is just one kind of impact. The neighborhood and land use impacts have to be fleshed out.” 

BRT booster Sarah Syed of the Transportation Commission said she wanted to see more detailed figures and background information, and asked for a discussion of reported ridership increases that have followed in the ongoing gasoline price escalation. 

Public comments came down on both sides of the issue. 

Michael Katz, a member of BBTOP, faulted AC Transit’s advocates for campaigning for BRT by adopting a policy of “conversion by ideal" to transform people from car to bus riders because of the presumption that some kind of moral benefit results. 

“We offer the community more bang for the buck,” he said, with shorter buses and shorter waits between buses. Gas prices were already prompting an increase in bus ridership, “and we think we can get optimal results without the detriment of dedicated lanes. The shift is already happening.” 

Martha Jones, a member of the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association board, said she was concerned both about the aesthetics of the proposed stations and by problems she said had been experienced by the Los Angeles Orange Line BRT system 

“They’ve had so many collisions with left-turning vehicles that buses have been slowed to 10 miles per hour before all intersections,” she said. Jones aid she was also concerned about construction impacts on Telegraph and in downtown Berkeley. 

Steve Geller, a BRT booster, urged the commissions to get moving, declaring that “each BRT bus takes 60 cars off the road,” adding that UC Berkeley had promised to scale back on building new campus parking facilities if BRT is approved. 

Skip BRT and go straight to an ecopass system that would help everyone ride the existing system, urged Merilee Mitchell. 

Describing the BRT proposal as the biggest infrastructure transformation in the city since the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, Bruce Wicinas said the current proposal offers only crude choices for the downtown routes and asked for more detailed descriptions of their alternatives and the tradeoffs involved. 

Joel Ramos of the Transformation and Land Use Coalition—which has endorsed the BRT concept—said he would leave design of the Berkeley part of the program “to the professionals.” 

“We encourage the commissions to move it along and not let this window of opportunity pass us by,” he said. 

Steve Finacom, a Telegraph area resident, ran through a list of concerns starting with the loss of street trees entailed by the construction process, the impacts of adding traffic lights to every intersection along the route and blocking of left turns onto Telegraph at most intersections and potential public safety impacts. 

“Another key issue is what is the legal mechanism that AC Transit proposes to guarantee they deliver on what they propose and which would allow the city to enforce that,” he said. 

The commissioners also heard from another BRT supporter, Helen Burke, an environmental activist who had just stepped down from her seat on the Planning Commission. 

“I’m not going away mad,” she said. “I’m just going away,” adding with a smile, “I always wanted to be on this side of the microphone.”  

BRT offers the city the biggest bang for the buck for reducing carbon emissions as called for in the city’s Climate Action Plan, Burke said, adding “there’s a way to listen to the concerns” of Telegraph Avenue merchants “and still move forward.”