Battle Over BRT Continues

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday November 26, 2008 - 10:36:00 AM

The overwhelming defeat of Berkeley Measure KK in the Nov. 4 election has resulted in a dramatic—and completely understandable—reversal of opinion about the meaning of the measure by at least some of its proponents and opponents. 

Measure KK proponents said at an AC Transit Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) workshop Wednesday night that despite the defeat of the measure, they would continue their opposition to BRT’s bus-lane set-aside along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, in part because they did not believe defeat of Measure KK meant that Berkeley residents support BRT. 

The AC Transit District is proposing to establish bus-only lanes along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley as part of the district’s ambitious proposal to set up a Bus Rapid Transit line from downtown San Leandro through downtown Oakland to downtown Berkeley, along the route currently taken by the district’s 1 and 1R lines. 

Meanwhile, AC Transit officials have released a proposed timeline that has completion of the environmental impact report process by the third quarter of 2010, final design for BRT by the first quarter of 2011, beginning of construction by the second quarter of 2012, with completion of the project tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2015. But the project still has to complete a complicated approval process involving winning federal funding grants, approval by city councils in Berkeley, San Leandro, and Oakland and final project approval by the AC Transit board. 

On Wednesday night, AC Transit Board President Chris Peeples said several times that the board should not be considered a “rubber stamp” for the BRT project, which was begun in the planning process by AC Transit before any current member was elected to the board. 

Two weeks ago, Berkeley voters defeated on a 76.7 percent no to 23.3 percent yes vote a citizen-sponsored measure to create an ordinance requiring voter approval for any proposal in Berkeley to establish transit-only street lanes within the city. 

In practical terms, while passage of Measure KK would have effectively dealt a death blow to the bus-lane set-aside portion of BRT, defeat of the measure only ensures that AC Transit can go forward with negotiations with the City of Berkeley over the proposal. AC Transit officials say that while BRT is an AC Transit proposal, “the cities own the streets,” and must give approval for any substantial alteration of street right-of-ways. 

During the campaign, many Measure KK proponents said that the measure was specifically designed to halt AC Transit District’s proposal to establish bus-only lanes along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, part of the district’s ambitious proposal to set up a Bus Rapid Transit line between downtown San Leandro, downtown Oakland, and downtown Berkeley. 

While some Measure KK opponents said during the campaign that the measure was a referendum on BRT, many others said their opposition was based on their belief that the measure would set bad governing policy. In the “Why Vote No On Measure KK” page of the No On Measure KK committee website, BRT is never mentioned, in fact, with the organization instead charging that the measure would block Berkeley’s advancement towards reducing greenhouse emissions. The site also points out Measure KK’s added costs, charging that “each new ballot measure mandated by Measure KK could cost the city up to $1.2 million, including the cost of an additional required planning study. That’s a lot of money in a city our size, money that could be better spent on things like education, healthcare, public safety, or actually improving transit and protecting our environment.” 

But during presentations at a special AC Transit Board BRT workshop on Wednesday, proponents and opponents abruptly switched fields, with Measure KK proponents now telling AC Transit officials that the Measure KK defeat was no indication of BRT sentiment in Berkeley because the defeat was caused solely by deceptive advertising fueled by campaign money brought in by outside interests. 

“I wanted to come tonight so that (AC Transit) did not think you had a mandate from that election that went on in Berkeley,” Berkeley resident Martha Jones said during the meeting’s public comment section. Jones then held up a blown-up version of one of the more famous campaign mailers of the November 2008 season, a “No On KK” brochure that featured a poignant full-color photo of a polar bear stranded on a small ice-floe in the middle of an ocean, an attempt to link Measure KK with anti-public-transit sentiments leading to global warming. 

“People voted [against Measure KK] because they thought they were saving the polar bears,” she said. “Only 28 people gave money to ‘No On KK’ and you will find that it is mostly people who have contracts with you.” 

Noting that one large “No On KK” donation came from New York and another from Cambridge, Massachusetts, she added “it’s not nice to have these interlopers coming into my city and dropping this big money to influence elections.” 

And another KK proponent, resident and community activist Gail Garcia, added that “despite the failure of Measure KK, there is huge opposition to BRT in Berkeley. The money [to oppose KK] largely came from the ABC Company, the U.S. distributor of the hated Van Hool buses, and falsehoods. Falsehoods, falsehoods that the local branch of the Sierra Club was willing to propagate. So money and lies defeated Measure KK.” The Sierra Club was one of Measure KK’s opponents. 

Garcia added that “opposition to BRT in Berkeley will continue to grow because the more they learn about it, the less they like it.” 

And Mary Oram, treasurer of the Advocates for Voter Approved Transit, a pro KK committee, said that the financial contributions for the two sides was a good estimate of the relative level of local feeling about BRT and KK. Oram estimated that “7 percent of the [anti-KK money] came from individuals, the rest came from special interest groups and companies that would benefit from BRT if it was ever put in. All of the [pro KK] money came from individuals and community associations in Berkeley.” 

Oram’s husband, George Oram, added that the BRT proposal does not provide along Telegraph Avenue “any service that has been asked for or endorsed by the bus riders on Telegraph Avenue or the residents on Telegraph Avenue or the merchants on Telegraph Avenue, and we believe we’re going to stop you.” 

Meanwhile, some Measure KK opponents are now saying that AC Transit should move forward with the planning and approval process for BRT in Berkeley because of the overwhelming support for the project demonstrated in the Measure KK vote. 

Berkeley resident Alan Tobey, treasurer of the No On KK campaign, who describes himself as “unapologetically responsible for the polar bear,” said that even though KK “literally didn’t [propose opposition to BRT], its campaign was pitched as the way to stop BRT on Telegraph Avenue. So the campaign literature and the many meetings I attended, the pitch was to vote for KK was to vote against the BRT project. We’ve learned that 77 percent of Berkeley residents disagreed with that proposition and said at this point we have no problem with BRT so far.”