AC Transit to Request Use of BRT Funds to Hold Off Service Cuts

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Monday September 28, 2009 - 07:32:00 PM

The AC Transit Board of Directors took a step back from its signature Bus Rapid Transit project last week. But just how big a step back is yet to be determined.  

At an unusual and hastily scheduled Friday night meeting, the board unanimously approved General Manager Rick Fernandez’s proposal to request a shift of funds from the BRT project to AC Transit's operating budget.  

The funds—already authorized for BRT by the Metropolitan Transit Commission—would be used to stave off a portion of AC Transit's pending personnel layoffs and major service cuts.  

In the best-case scenario, the proposed fund-swap would allow the district to reduce its impending 15 percent bus service cuts by half, prevent any immediate layoffs, and postpone the start of BRT construction for just one year. At worst, it could cause either a longer delay in BRT implementation, reduction of the scope of the project, or even a possible abandonment of BRT altogether.  

The proposed service cuts and layoffs were initiated after AC Transit declared a fiscal emergency earlier this year, and last June projected a $57 million operating deficit. Since that time, district staff members say the transit agency is anticipating even further reductions in sales and property tax income this year. 

Fernandez and AC Transit Board members denied last week’s sudden fund-swap proposal signaled the beginning of the end of BRT. 

“We’re hopeful that we can still keep the BRT project alive,” Fernandez told board members in presenting his proposal at the Sept. 25 meeting. 

South Alameda County board member Jeff Davis, who made the motion to approve the fund-swap proposal, said “many people think this means the death knell of BRT. It does not. This is no reflection of my support for BRT.”  

But in remarking on the rapidity with which the proposal first came to light and then came before the AC Transit board—rumors of the Fernandez proposal only began circulating a week ago, during a time when AC Transit was still promoting BRT at community meetings—Davis acknowledged that the proposal could put the BRT project in danger, saying that “for a project that has such a long history, to think that it could be jeopardized in such a quick time is so wrenching to those who have committed themselves to this project.” 

With member Joel Young absent and Joe Wallace participating by telephone, board members voted 6-0 to authorize Fernandez to pursue the transfer of funds. 

Under the proposal, which Fernandez says has garnered a favorable preliminary reception by Metropolitan Transit Commission Executive Steve Heminger, the 19-member commission requested to take $35 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) capital project-only funds already committed to the BRT project and apply it to another capital transit project under MTC’s nine-county jurisdiction. In return, MTC will be asked to identify $35 million in unrestricted CMAQ money for AC Transit to use in its operation budget. 

Distribution of the CMAQ money among local transit agencies is controlled by the MTC board. 

Fernandez had also proposed a similar swap for $45.6 million in MTC-controlled Regional Measure 2 (RM2), saying he did not believe Heminger would recommend to the board the CMAQ swap only. But on a motion by At-Large AC Transit Director Chris Peeples, Fernandez will feel out Heminger to find out if the CMAQ swap can go through on its own, with AC Transit holding onto the RM2 funds for the BRT project while it seeks out other funding sources to relieve its remaining budget problems. 

The proposed transaction is complicated by the fact that even if Heminger and the MTC board approve the proposed swap, there is no guarantee that MTC will be able to find enough unrestricted CMAQ or RM2 money within its control to swap with the BRT-designated capital funds. In that event, Fernandez said, both the BRT project and the district’s proposed January service cuts and layoffs would move forward as planned. 

AC Transit must move fast on the proposed swap because the longer the district holds off on the service cuts and layoffs, the deeper its financial hole will be. 

AC Transit is in the last stages of the development process of BRT, an ambitious proposal to run fast, light-rail-like bus service between downtown Berkeley, downtown Oakland, and downtown San Leandro along the Telegraph Avenue/International Boulevard/East 14th Street route currently used by the district’s 1 and 1R bus lines. 

That process was moving forward on its original schedule even as the AC Transit board contemplated slowing it down. 

The night before the emergency Friday AC Transit board meeting, Berkeley’s Willard Neighborhood Association—in conjunction with the LeConte, Halcyon, Claremont-Elmwood, and Bateman associations—held a community meeting at Willard Middle School to give staff members from the City of Berkeley the chance to present the city's BRT Locally Preferred Alternative to the public and answer questions. 

Berkeley is proposing slight modifications to AC Transit’s plans to generally run dedicated, bus-only lanes for BRT along Telegraph Avenue between the UC Berkeley campus entrance and the Berkeley-Oakland border. Similar to the 1 and 1R lines, BRT would connect with downtown Berkeley in a loop to run along Bancroft Way and Durant Avenue. 

Community sentiment was high at the Willard meeting in opposition to any transfer of lanes along Telegraph from auto use to exclusive bus use. The only speakers at the meeting who won applause were those who opposed the dedicated-lane proposal, and when one speaker asked for opponents of BRT in the audience to stand up, nearly two thirds of the participants stood up. 

The City of Berkeley will be holding its own community meeting on the proposed BRT project from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17, in the third floor Community Meeting Room at the Berkeley Central Library.