In 2008, the East Bay’s only public bus system—AC Transit—staved off possible service cuts or fare increases, for now, at least, with the passage of a tax measure by area voters, and signed a new contract with its bus drivers union. The financially troubled agency was not able to pull away from the continuing controversy over its “partnership” with Belgian bus manufacturer Van Hool, however. And AC Transit continued its deliberate march that the agency hopes will ultimately lead to the Bay Area’s first rapid bus line, BRT.
Meanwhile, the Berkeley Daily Planet continued as the only local media outlet that covers the multi-million dollar AC Transit on anything resembling a regular basis.
Late in January, members of Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 192—AC Transit’s 1,400 member bus drivers union—voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike vote in negotiations over a contract that expired last July. Union officials said that no strike was imminent, however.
Also in January, AC Transit members were surprised to learn that its plans for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system running between downtown San Leandro and downtown Berkeley along the current 1 and 1R lines might reach a potential chokepoint at Oakland’s Lake Merritt.
AC Transit is committing much of its operational and financial future on the building of the BRT system, which depends on high-speed buses running along its line. But district officials learned in January that Oakland’s plans to shrink the roadway between Lake Merritt and the old Kaiser Convention Center—through which all buses going to and from downtown Oakland must pass—could so slow down traffic in that area that any speed gains along the rest of the proposed BRT line would be nullified. District officials said they were continuing negotiations with Oakland officials to try to work out the problem.
And with expenses increasing rapidly and subsidies from the state in jeopardy, if fare revenues don’t increase, the district began taking its first look at possible fare increases.
The district held a public hearing in late May on proposed fare increases, some of which could be as much as 25 cents above the current $1.75 adult fare. Many public speakers at the hearing said the increases would be devastating to many bus riders and urged district officials and board members to look for other means to raise revenues.
In late May and early June, attention in Berkeley began focusing on AC Transit’s BRT proposal which, if implemented, could significantly alter the two central traffic lanes of Telegraph Avenue from the Oakland border to UC Berkeley, making them exclusively bus-only lanes. The city was sharply divided over the issue, with some believing the lane and bus changes would bring about an economic revival of Telegraph Avenue as well as enhance bus service, others believing it would be a disaster for both the business district and the residents.
The City of Berkeley’s planning and transportation commissioners held a joint meeting to consider possible alternatives to the AC Transit BRT proposal. At the same time, a group of anti-BRT residents moved forward with a November ballot measure to make the BRT street lane closures subject to a direct citizen vote rather than City Council approval.
While Berkeley debated the pros and cons of BRT, AC Transit Board President Chris Peeples expressed surprise that the proposal had not gained more attention and public discussion in Oakland. All three cities in which BRT proposes to be run, including San Leandro, must sign off on any BRT alterations that affect their city’s streets.
The AC Transit Board of Directors postponed any possible fare increase until after the November election, in which they proposed to put a tax increase before the voters in order to solidify the district’s financial base. District officials warned, however, that even if any proposed tax measure passed, fare increases or service cuts might still be necessary in 2009 if the district’s financial situation worsened.
Late in June, with an eye towards the continuing controversy over its relationship with the Van Hool bus manufacturers, AC Transit board members voted to put a new round of 60-foot bus purchases out for competitive bidding, rejecting a request by district manager Rick Fernandez to immediately award the 19 bus contract to Van Hool.
And a confirmed Van Hool opponent, retired Oakland architect Joyce Roy, announced plans to run against Chris Peeples for his at-large transit board seat.
In August, AC Transit announced that it was initiating a rider survey to get feedback for the prototype for 66 modified 40-foot Van Hool buses the district has ordered from the Belgian bus manufacturer. The modifications were intended to meet complaints and suggestions made by riders, drivers, and district engineers about the original 40 foot Van Hools operated by the district.
Under questioning from board members, however, district officials admitted that the prototype survey results would come back too late to have any effect on the manufacture of the modified buses, which were scheduled to begin delivery in late August, leading to questions about why the survey was commissioned in the first place.
In mid-October, a forum held by District One Oakland Councilmember Jane Brunner showed that North Oakland residents were as divided over the BRT proposal as Berkeley residents, with many public speakers in support, and just as many in opposition.
AC Transit scored an impressive double victory in the November election, with 72 percent of Alameda and Contra Costa county voters supporting the district’s $48 per year parcel tax (Measure VV), and 80 percent of Berkeley voters rejecting the ballot measure (KK) that would have effectively hamstrung the development of BRT along Telegraph Avenue. Proponents and opponents of Measure KK continued their battling, post-election, unable to decide whether the decisive defeat of the measure meant that Berkeley residents were also decisively in favor of BRT.
Council President Peeples won a 64 percent to 35 percent victory over challenger Joyce Roy for his at-large district board seat, putting away the most spirited challenge against the district’s continued close relationship with Van Hool bus manufacturer. Roy had made the election in part a referendum on the AC Transit-Van Hool relationship. The AC Transit board immediately moved to authorize new Van Hool bus purchases.
AC Transit’s other at-large board member, Rebecca Kaplan, was elected to the Oakland City Council, meaning the AC Transit board will soon select a new member to complete the second half of Kaplan’s four-year term.