Recent revelations about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) support the reservations expressed by critics. The extent of the harm this entrepreneurial free-for-all threatens to do to our community goes beyond the imaginings of early naysayers. Ever since David Stoloff’s hand was stayed from surreptitiously giving the Ashby BART parking lot to his developer pals there have been continuous attempts upon Berkeley’s buildings and rights of way: Laurie Capitelli’s recent assault on North Berkeley at Shattuck and Rose, stymied for now by people who live and work there; the Southside plan—a monumental script for inconvenience and pedestrian and bicycle un-safety. But that won’t happen for some time if at all.
BRT is bigger than you think. Its pattern follows the national trend that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in World War II, famously named the military/industrial complex. Eisenhower (a Republican dedicated to preserving the Constitution) said government and private industries are determined to feed the war machine at the expense of all else and would ruin this country and the world if not checked by an alert citizenry. Constant wars started by the American government and paid for by our money given to private contractors are well on the way to doing just that. “Our” government only serves our interests if we insist, loudly and continuously, through intelligent use of the ballot and constant activism that it do so. (Even then it very frequently does not.) The real war is not sequestered abroad; it is fought within our borders against those who value money more than people and see the majority of citizens merely as means to their self-enrichment.
Sadly, this is not a ludicrous comparison. The same institutionalized unwisdom has steadily eroded the quality of life in Berkeley: a municipal/financial complex. The city government facilitates exploitation of our environment and common lands by speculators without regard to citizens’ wishes. Large scale plans are hatched in back rooms, refined, then partially revealed with minimum fanfare to fly under the public’s radar. And financiers and developers at city hall don’t labor under the legal requirements theoretically imposed on lobbyists in Washington, D.C. If you think government should be directed by the public it serves, then local government and publicly paid organizations operating without public oversight, input, or consent are cause for serious concern. In the case of BRT, the City of Berkeley and Alameda County Transit exhibit an historic level of disinterest in what the public thinks or wants.
The special interest group Friends of BRT tells us that BRT is the only solution to a problem that doesn’t exist: the “need” for faster bus transit. To swallow this fallacy we would have to ignore the largest elephant in the room since George Bush’s intellect: there is already the bus! Despite AC Transit’s service cuts the bus takes us nearly anywhere we want to go in reasonable time. Improvements are needed in outlying areas such as East Oakland. Getting to Oakland from Berkeley and vice versa is a snap. We do not need to wreck Telegraph Avenue or destroy the neighborhoods and businesses that surround it. (If this last is news to you keep reading.)
Like the war machine, AC Transit’s and City of Berkeley’s interest in BRT is money—not the welfare and convenience of people and business that line the bus route. That’s Money with a capital M: hundreds of millions of dollars. AC Transit has needed money since general manager Rick Fernandez took control in 2003. He has grabbed every goodie he can for himself, including a $400,000 “loan” to buy a house and over 100 trips to Europe for himself and his favorites. There is no believable pretext for their globe trotting. The exclusive American distributor of Van Hool buses, ABC Company, Headquartered in Minnesota, maintains a location in Garden Grove, Calif., that distributes parts and offers technical services and advice as well as sales. The trips to Belgium, Paris, and Rome by Ferdandez and friends have not been necessary to acquire busses from this foreign supplier.
Fernandez’ allegiance to Van Hool has lead him to squander millions on high-priced buses from abroad that are unsafe and costlier to maintain than American-made buses preferred by riders and drivers. AC Transit’s boss does not dispute the East Bay Express’ report that he continued charging purchases to his dead wife’s credit cards months after she passed away. Giving this man control over hundreds of millions of dollars is like giving Bart Simpson a grenade launcher. Look out!
The City of Berkeley has handed hundreds of taxable properties to un-taxable UC. But downsizing city revenues has not deterred record-breaking salaries and gold-plated retirements paid to high-level city managers. Berkeley needs cash and lots of it. But giving the city government more money without fixing the structural problems that place every developer before any citizen will not stop the best-paid city government in the nation from scuttling the warm pool and the skating rink and allowing developers to block out the sky and destroy our last remaining open spaces.
“Policy-makers” care nothing for the residents and businesses along Telegraph Avenue. Not only does BRT mean turning Telegraph into an un-bike-able traffic nightmare; it also means large scale re-development under the rubric of turning Telegraph into a ‘transit corridor’: goodies for developers, fees for the city, and “closed” signs for existing businesses, many of which are likely to be replaced by corporate chains that duct money out and away from the local economy. (See details at: www.lookingglassphoto.com/TelegraphBRT.html)
No one in their right mind wants to live amidst this nightmare. That is why thousands of residents and business owners in the neighborhoods lining Telegraph are screaming bloody murder.
Glen Kohler is a Berkeley resident.