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City Council Threatens to Take Over AC Transit Bus Lines

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:18:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council delivered a slightly veiled threat to AC Transit Tuesday night, offering to work with the embattled bus district to hold off planned service reductions, but if those cuts go on as planned, strongly indicating that the city would move to develop partnerships with other transit agencies or businesses to provide supplemental bus service in Berkeley. 

Looking to plug a $9.74 million shortfall in the 2009-10 fiscal year budget seeking to keep the bus district solvent over the next several years, AC Transit is proposing this December to drop 905 hours of bus service per day across the two-county district, 458 hours on weekends, for an estimated annual savings of $18 million. 

In Berkeley, AC Transit is proposing reducing the hours of operation and/or the frequency of buses on lines 51, 9, and 52L. In addition, the district is proposing breaking the 51 line into two separate lines at the Rockridge BART Station. 

  At Tuesday’s meeting, the Berkeley City Council approved on a 7-1 vote (Worthington voting no) a recommendation by Coun-cilmembers Laurie Capitelli, Darryl Moore, and Susan Wengraf to direct the Berkeley city manager to write a letter to the AC Transit Board “opposing cuts to bus transit service in Berkeley.” The council also agreed, at the suggestion of both Worthington and Wengraf, to include with the mailing a letter by Berkeley Transportation Commission Secretary Farid Javandel that provided detailed alternatives to the proposed AC Transit cuts, and the council also agreed to forward the two letters to key members of the state legislature and to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

But the council rejected, on a 2-5-2 vote (Arreguín and Worthington voting yes, Moore, Capitelli, Wengraf, Wozniak, and Bates voting no, Maio and Anderson abstaining) a motion by Worthington to soften what he called the “threatening language” in the original council-approved letter. 

  The language in the letter Worthington wanted to alter seemed innocent enough, saying that the Council “also urge[s] AC [Transit] to explore the feasibility of creating collaborative efforts with private transit systems (LBNL, U.C. Berkeley, Alta Bates, West Berkeley, EmeryGoRound) to more efficiently deliver expanded feeder services to our community. Given the limited resources it is imperative that the City of Berkeley explore all possible alternative structures to insure the highest level of service.” 

   But Worthington pointed to a letter sent by Councilmember Moore to the Berkeley City Transportation Commission saying that “if AC Transit cannot provide the necessary service to West Berkeley, and the city as a whole, then we should find other alternatives.” In his letter, Moore asked the city’s Transportation Commission to “suggest various operating arrangements that would reasonably result in service that would be attractive enough to be a viable option to Berkeley residents.” 

In a Sept. 21 memo to the Council in answer to Moore’s request, the Transportation Commission suggested working with AC Transit to develop “a new service model and reworking of neighborhood transit routes [in Berkeley] to better serve community destinations,” but added that “should AC Transit be uninterested in providing this, or similar, transit service that accomplishes the City’s goals of providing attractive local transit service, the Transportation Commission has begun to research the feasibility of severing the neighborhood services from the AC Transit network.” 

The “severing the neighborhood [bus] services from the AC Transit network” appeared to be the most ominous part of the Transportation Commission’s memo. 

And Mayor Tom Bates was more explicit at Tuesday’s council meeting, saying that “you can’t offer an effective transit system when you don’t provide some kind of connector service on a basis that’s regular enough that people can rely on it.” Bates said that if AC Transit “cannot afford” to provide that type of service, “we have to begin thinking about what are the other things [the City of Berkeley] might be able to do to provide that service.” Regarding the property tax AC Transit gets from Berkeley to provide bus service in the city, Bates suggested that “maybe we should figure out some way that [AC Transit] provide[s] service north and south, and [the City of Berkeley] gets the property tax money and we provide east and west connecting service.” Bates said “if we don’t think creatively, we’re just destined to see people stop riding the bus.” 

Several councilmembers denied that the council was threatening AC Transit, with Moore saying that it was “really unfair and unreasonable that parts of [the Council] letter [to AC Transit] have been characterized as threats to anyone.” 

But following the City Council meeting, AC Transit At-Large board member Chris Peeples, who attended, said that “of course, some of the language” in the various documents “was threatening.” Peeples said it would be an error for Berkeley to attempt to pull money away from AC Transit to provide supplemental bus service in the city, saying that AC Transit could provide such service “cheaper than any other agency,” and pulling money out of AC Transit “would only make the situation worse” for public transportation in Berkeley. 

In other action Tuesday night, the council unanimously approved a recommendation by the Zoning Adjustments Board to allow the Thai Temple to continue its highly popular Sunday food sales at its 1911 Russell St. location. ZAB approved a new permit after neighborhood complaints showed that the temple was in violation of a 1993 use permit that allowed food service only on special occasions three times per year. Temple officials agreed to several provisions proposed by ZAB to ease neighborhood concerns, including starting food preparation at 8 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. and moving the food consumption area on to the part of the temple lot away from residences. The city permit also limits participants in the food sales to 200 at any given time.