Transit Board President Surprised More Oaklanders Aren’t Weighing In on BRT

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday June 19, 2008 - 09:36:00 AM

With the AC Transit district working on an ambitious proposal to run dedicated, bus rapid transit-only lanes from San Leandro and across the city of Oakland to the UC Berkeley campus, the president of the AC Transit board of directors says he is “surprised” that more Oakland residents and politicians have not weighed in on the idea. 

“In Berkeley it’s a big deal,” At-Large Director Chris Peeples said by telephone this week, noting that the debate in Berkeley has now included a planned citizen referendum on the project proposed for the November ballot. “But Berkeley has a tradition of citizen activism. There are a lot of people in the city who have expertise, people who know what they’re talking about and are speaking up. Berkeley’s pretty well-informed. I wish it were that way in Oakland. I don’t think most Oakland residents have a clue about how major a project this is.” 

In fact, other than a lively discussion by residents and businessowners along the North Oakland Telegraph Avenue corridor that runs directly into the proposed Berkeley route of the BRT project, Oakland has been virtually silent on the issue. A staff report released at the last AC Transit Board meeting revealed that while AC Transit staff met in December of last year with “every Oakland City Council member whose District is on the BRT corridor” that proposes to run down Telegraph to downtown Oakland, down 14th Street and around the 14th Street-12th Street Lake Merritt exchange, then down International to the San Leandro border (Councilmembers Jane Brunner, Pat Kernighan, Nancy Nadel, Desley Brooks, and Larry Reid), only De La Fuente and Kernighan have since submitted statements for inclusion in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. 

AC Transit expects each of the three cities in the proposed BRT route—San Leandro, Oakland, and Berkeley—to provide the district with what they call a “local preferred alternative” (LPA) to the transit district’s proposal if city officials disagree with elements of AC Transit’s plans. 

While the AC Transit board will eventually have the last say on what the final form of the BRT project will be, that decision can only be made after a series of complicated and delicate negotiations and discussions with the respective city governments involved. 

“The cities own the streets,” Peeples said, “so if we want to do something as simple as putting in a bus stop, the cities have to give their permission. That’s true in spades and diamonds with something as major as proposing to put in two dedicated bus lanes. We have to work closely with the three cities, and the cities have to sign off on whatever we eventually propose.” 

Peeples said that once the three cities come back with LPAs, “my guess is that we can make [the cities’ proposed alternative plans] work so long as it’s reasonable.”  

While there has been some public discussion in Oakland about accommodating BRT to the city’s proposed Measure DD alterations to the roadway between the western end of Lake Merritt and the old Kaiser Convention Center, there has been virtual silence on the effect to the east, where AC Transit wants to appropriate the two center lanes of the entire length of International Boulevard. That would include the already-congested commercial area of the Fruitvale business district, as well as create the necessity of removing left-turn lanes and landscaped center divides from High Street to the San Leandro border. Such changes would have a major impact on traffic along International Boulevard, for good or bad. 

According to the AC Transit staff report, “once [AC Transit] staff has finalized district responses to Oakland staff and councilmember comment letters, and addressed other issues, a resolution on the LPA will be put before the Oakland City Council,” anticipated to be in August or September of this year.  

The same report said that Berkeley was working on its “local proposed alternative” at the staff level, and that “council action approving the LPA could take place as early as September.” 

That timetable is more ambitious than the one presented to last week’s AC Transit Board by BRT Project Manager Jim Cunradi, who said that he “hopes the cities will submit recommendations to AC Transit” by the fall and winter.  

Both Peeples and AC Transit Board Vice President Rebecca Kaplan have asked that the board take up what they call a “substantive discussion” on BRT once the cities’ recommendations are received. Peeples said that such a discussion would include “the board giving final approval of whether or not we want this program,” a comment that suggested that BRT itself might be in some jeopardy within the district itself. Asked about that directly in this week’s telephone interview, Peeples called that a “mis-impression,” and that his comments were intended only to mean that the planned “substantive discussions” by the board could mean a modification or even abandonment of some sections of the BRT proposal, as well as the addition of some elements not yet included. 

Meanwhile, the San Leandro City Council has already gone on record opposing the operation of the BRT dedicated lanes through its downtown. Instead, according to Assistant City Manager Steve Hollister, the council wants BRT to terminate at the Downtown San Leandro BART station instead of at the proposed BayFair BART station, ending just short of the downtown area. The San Leandro City Council is proposing that from Davis Street south, the downtown border, BRT would run down East 14th Street to BayFair BART without dedicated lanes, as the type of rapid bus system AC Transit currently operates along several lines. 

“The downtown area is just too narrow to accommodate dedicated bus lanes,” Hollister said by telephone. 

He said the city expects to hold a series of neighborhood and community meetings throughout the summer, with the City Council expected to discuss the project again in late September or early October.