As Jesus says in Matthew 26:52, “those that take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” In the case of just-defeated initiative Measure KK, the “sword” its proponents took up was their conviction that the issue would be considered an up or down vote on one specific Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project—AC Transit’s proposal to run dedicated-lane buses on Telegraph Avenue and on into downtown. As mayoral candidate Shirley Dean said at a neighborhood meeting early in the campaign, “Measure KK is the best way we have to stop the BRT in Berkeley.”
This rhetorical sword was one of their own choosing—it was not something built in to the measure. In fact, Measure KK had absolutely nothing to say about the parameters of the specific BRT project, and the vote on KK had nothing to do with directly deciding its fate. The initiative would only have changed the way some major transit projects including BRT are decided in the future; upgrading a street lane from auto to transit or carpool use would have required an affirmative vote of the people.
Most electoral officials—and the League of Women Voters—opposed KK solely because of that proposed procedural change, feeling that transit decisions should remain within the scope of established Council authority, and fearing that KK’s bad precedent would encourage further such electoral mischief-making.
The formal campaign against KK, which I helped to manage, also stayed away from expressing any opinion about the one proposed project. As well as the procedural points, we focused on the undesirable consequences of delaying good transit projects for up to two more years AFTER the City Council already approved them—and after dozens of meetings, workshops and public hearings had been held to allow vigorous citizen participation. Our No campaign’s own “sword” was primarily an environmental one—we maintained that the climate-saving and other environmental benefits of major transit improvements like BRT should not be delayed any more than necessary. In an election that we knew would skew young, left and green, we were willing to risk “perishing” by our advocacy of better and greener transit as soon as possible.
In the end Berkeley voters were not persuaded by the anti-BRT campaign, and they turned down Measure KK by a substantial 77 percent-23 percent majority.
The defeat leaves KK proponents still holding their anti-BRT-project sword—by which their cause is now in danger of perishing. Fairly or not, the City Council will now be encouraged to accept the framing KK proponents chose to run on, and to see the defeat of KK as a citywide endorsement of both BRT in general and the Telegraph/Downtown project in particular. There is no longer any reason for thinking that “nobody wants BRT” in Berkeley—most voters, in fact, have just said they’re open to the idea.
That doesn’t mean that future BRT project approval will be either automatic or reached in haste. The Council must first help to define the final current project by selecting “local preferred alternatives” from among several possibilities for routes, dedicated-lane blocks, station locations and the like. With that information, AC Transit will complete a Final Environmental Impact Report. That document will further analyze the potential negative impacts of the project that have so exercised opponents. It will also now be able to propose specific mitigations for those impacts—in areas such as parking, traffic and merchant impact—in order to make the resulting BRT service far more acceptable even to near neighbors. AC Transit has already said, for example, that any parking taken away by BRT construction in areas where parking is currently in short supply will be replaced.
Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick that “Ignorance is the father of fear.” The ultimate decision on the BRT project may still be more than a year away, but we can be grateful that it will be much more informed by real facts than by the partial ignorance that still prevails today. As new facts replace current fears, the decision should continually become less a matter of irrational concern—even for those now left to ponder the losing sword they took up.
Alan Tobey is a Berkeley resident.