Public Comment

The Facts of Bus Rapid Transit

By Jim Bullock
Thursday September 18, 2008 - 09:38:00 AM

Charles Siegel apparently put on green-tinted blinders before examining AC Transit’s BRT proposal and the arguments for measure KK (last week’s Daily Planet). With these blinders on, any proposal with “bus” in the title looks good, regardless of the cost or the projected benefits. With his blinders on, Mr. Siegel can’t see the difference between a $250 million boondoggle and a well-crafted proposal to improve rapid transit in the East Bay. I urge Mr. Siegel to take off his blinders and take a hard look at the current AC Transit proposals. If he does a thorough, clear-sighted assessment of what’s being proposed, I think he will come to the same conclusion that I have: BRT as proposed is a foolish waste of precious transit funds. 

The only place Mr. Siegel can go to find out about the current BRT proposals is AC Transit’s draft environmental impact report (EIR). Mr. Siegel dismisses the draft EIR as not a good source of data. Measure KK backers, he says “do not realize that a draft EIR is a first draft” and that “projects are changed based on public comments on the draft EIR...” What Mr. Siegel doesn’t understand (or doesn’t want to acknowledge) is that by law the subject project of a draft EIR cannot be substantially changed when the final EIR is issued. If an agency wants or needs to significantly change a proposed project, they must change the draft EIR and recirculate it. 

Bottom line: What we see in the draft EIR is basically what we’re gonna get. To borrow a phrase from the presidential candidates, AC Transit has four pigs in the draft EIR. They’re gonna put lipstick on one of them in time for the final EIR, but it will still be a pig. 

The facts from the draft EIR, which Mr. Siegel and other BRT proponents would like us to ignore, are these: 

The cost of the BRT project will be at least $250 million. 

None of the proposed alternatives will even moderately affect transit usage in the East Bay. The most successful, if you call it that, of the alternatives is projected to increase transit usage by fewer than 5,000 people per day. That is an approximate 1.4 percent increase over the proposal to do nothing. 

None of the proposed alternatives will have an impact on the levels of carbon monoxide, reactive organic gas, nitrogen oxides, or particulates in East Bay air. 

None of the proposed alternatives would save energy. (“The energy impacts of the Build Alternatives as compared to the No-Build Alternative would be negligible.” Draft EIR, p. 4-152.) 

BRT would eliminate between 1,000 and 1,600 parking spaces along its entire route, including 75 percent of the parking on Telegraph between Dwight Way and the Berkeley border. As if things weren’t tough enough for the small businesses in that area! 

Mr. Siegel quotes the draft EIR (how ironic!), which says that BRT would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six million pounds. Six million is a big number and it sounds impressive. According to the Nature Conservancy, however, the average two-person American household emits 53 million pounds of CO2 per year. Mr. Siegel would have us spend $250 million to eliminate the CO2 that is generated by two people in about six weeks. How can he possibly think this is a wise use of transit funds? 

Despite these facts, AC Transit, Mayor Tom Bates and, it appears, many members of the Berkeley City Council, would like to proceed with the next step of BRT implementation. Who knows what their motivation is? It is certainly not based on their concern for the environment. 

This is why a group of concerned citizens worked so hard to put measure KK on the ballot. Mr. Siegel implies that KK proponents are anti-transit. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of us would happily and heartily support meaningful transit improvements in Berkeley and the East Bay. Based on the facts in front of us today, however, the current BRT proposals fall far short of “meaningful improvements.” The fact that AC Transit and some members of the City Council want to ignore this fact and push ahead with BRT means we can no longer trust those people to make sensible transit decisions. 

There is historical precedent. In 1966, Berkeley citizens bucked transportation planners and government officials to prevent a project that would have scarred Berkeley for generations. BART was originally designed to be above ground through Berkeley. The Alameda County Supervisors had approved the design. Construction had already begun on other parts of the system. Berkeley citizens rose up and said “Hell, no!” Our parents and grandparents voted to tax themselves in order to put BART under ground through Berkeley. Would anyone argue today that Berkeley would be better off if we had listened to the planners and the officials who were so wrong on this issue? 

Given the chance, Berkeley citizens will again make a better transit decisions than transit officials and government bureaucrats. That’s why we support measure KK. 

Jim Bullock is a Berkeley resident.