BRT Proposal Raises Questions, Fewer Answers at Commission

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 05:54:00 PM

Planning commissioners Wednesday confronted what Chair James Samuels called “a chicken/egg problem”: How to define a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route without knowing its full impacts. 

The controversial proposal from AC Transit would create a new bus route from Berkeley to San Leandro—running (possibly) from Berkeley’s downtown Bay Area Rapid Transit station to Bayfair BART. 

But, as the report from city transportation planners Beth Greene and Kara Vuicich made clear, a great many questions remain unanswered, especially when four different governments are involved. 

While the project belong to AC Transit—a public agency with its own elected board drawn from both Alameda and Contra Costa counties (the A and C in its name)—the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro must all sign off on the final plans. 

Add to that the facts that Oakland has barely begun its evaluation of a preferred route and the possibility that Berkeley voters could force any route in the city to be subject to a public referendum, then toss in strong local objections to some of the transit agency’s ideas and the future become cloudy indeed. 

BRT is a system which backers say will provided fast, reliable transit—especially if buses are granted dedicated lanes between stations within no more than a quarter mile of any point along its route. 

Proponents say it’s a way to get people out of their cars, reducing planet-warming greenhouse gases. 

But foes say that any reductions in emissions would be minimal, while portraying the concept itself as a Trojan horse for developers who could build denser developments than currently allowed by municipal zoning laws. 

In Berkeley, the final plan proposed for the location and particulars of the route will be decided by the City Council after examining recommendations from the Transportation and Planning commissions and city staff. 

Samuels offered the basic conundrum facing the city: “In effect, AC Transit will provide us with some information on some LPA (locally preferred alternative), but they can’t do that until we vote on some specific scheme.”  

Only then will the agency analyze the impacts of the LPA. 

Commission secretary Jordan Harrison said stakeholder meetings would also be held to discuss project impacts, with the LPA then modified to reflect community concerns before returning to the commission for its recommendations before bring the final LPA to the City Council. 

Then, and only after Oakland and San Leandro settle on their own LPAs, will AC Transit conduct a detailed analysis of the entire package, for the project’s final environmental impact report (EIR). 


KK, variants 

But another monkey wrench to the transit agency’s plans could come from Berkeley voters, who will decide Nov. 5 on Measure KK. 

That ballot initiative would remove final say on the city’s LPA from the council’s hands and place in the ballot box, giving voters the decision on whether to accept or reject it. If the council rejected the LPA, no vote would be needed, said Greene. 

“Can you change the LPA if we decide on a route we like better?” asked commissioner Patti Dacey. 

But senior planner Alex Amoroso said that while the analysis might look at variants of the LPA, selecting a significantly different route—say from the current main line down Telegraph Avenue to Adeline Street/Martin Luther King Jr. Way-- “would be a whole different ball of wax.” 

Key decisions will involve the route BRT would take from Telegraph Avenue to the downtown BART station, whether or not to have dedicated BRT-only lanes, lanes used by both BRT and regular bus lines or no dedicated lanes at all. 

Other questions involve the spacing and location of stations, raised platforms where passengers with prepaid fares could quickly board and exit the buses. Locations are critical for evaluating station impacts, Greene said. 

Commissioner James Novosel said that members of the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee had been presented with much more detailed information about the physical appearance of the BRT proposal and asked for detailed sections of the proposed configuration along Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues and Bancroft Way. 

Staff was able to provide an AC Transit digital animation of selected segments, featuring an articulated bus that one commissioner quipped looked as long as a train. 


Density rules 

Dacey said she was concerned about the potential impacts of two state bonuses that allow builders to exceed height and mass limits in local codes. One, the state density bonus, is automatic, but the second and more controversial Transit Oriented Development bonus applies only when an area is so designated by local government. 

Dacey said she was concerned whether or not the bonuses would be additive or mutually exclusive, but none of the staff was able to provide an answer. 

The transit-oriented designation could apply to the area around stations, significantly increasing density under legislation designed to reduce driving. 

Commissioner Gene Poschman has been a frequent critic of the designation, citing studies that show car ridership may not drop in the designated areas. 

A proposal to designate the Ashby BART station as a transit village sparked furious neighborhood opposition and was eventually dropped. 

But Greene said the presence of BRT stations is likely to make the surrounding areas more attractive to developers because the facilities are permanent, unlike ordinary bus stops which can be readily changed. 

Investment in station infrastructure, she said, would increase property values. 

Teresa Clarke, who was sitting in as an interim commissioner, said she would like any BRT proposal to include a listing of opportunity sites for station development. She also questioned the need for dedicated lanes on Telegraph, but said they were needed for the downtown loop section of the route. 

Samuels said staff should also recommend whether stations should be located in the center of the street or in curbside locations. 

Poschman said he wanted to see more detailed information about how BRT would impact the city’s Climate Action Plan, which is now headed to the commission. 

Another concern is just what impact the BRT stations will have on residential parking, with Dacey concerned about the effects on the Willard neighborhood. While AC Transit has called for new spaces to replace those lost because of BRT, commissioners said they wanted to knew where the new spaces would be located and how readily accessible they would be to the neighborhoods which would lose parking. 

“AC Transit hasn’t said,” said Vuicich, “but we need to look at it on a block-by-block level.” 

Janet Stromberg, sitting in as an interim commissioner, said that she was concerned that projections called for a 164-car increase in traffic on College Avenue, with a decrease of 800 on Telegraph. 

“College is already incredibly impacted, and to add more cars there seems crazy,” she said. 


UC use 

And while College Avenue traffic was one consideration, another was the relationship between BRT and UC Berkeley. 

Samuels said, “There is a perception among some people that BRT will mainly benefit UC, but I don’t know where than comes from.” 

UC planner Billy Riggs attended Wednesday night’s meetings along with members of a university planning class. 

University policy calls for housing students either within a one-mile walking distance of campus or a 20-minute public transit ride, and Riggs said BRT was unlikely to cause students to move to Oakland. 

Anna Ostow, one of the students herself, agreed. “I bike and live really close to campus,” she said. If BRT expanded the 20-minute radius deep into Oakland, “I probably wouldn’t live there, but it’s an interesting thought.” 

“Our student population lives mostly within walking distance of campus,” Riggs said, with 70 percent walking or biking to their classes. 

But BRT service could make a difference for faculty and staff, he said. 

Another student said BRT wouldn’t make a difference for him unless the housing at the other end was significantly cheaper.