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City Council Opens Debate on Bus Alternatives

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday March 18, 2010 - 10:35:00 PM
The City Council is scheduled to discuss a "Build" option at their meeting. Above, a AC Transit Rapid bus on Telegraph Avenue.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss a "Build" option at their meeting. Above, a AC Transit Rapid bus on Telegraph Avenue.

Bus Rapid Transit lovers, haters and skeptics are getting ready to make their case at the Berkeley City Council Tuesday, when the council discusses whether to decide on which “Build” alternative if any to forward to AC Transit for environmental review.  

The council is now scheduled to take a formal vote on the issue on April 20. 

Although Councilmember Kriss Worthington asked at Monday's Council Agenda Committee meeting for a public hearing to be scheduled at one of these meetings to allow Berkeley residents a chance to voice their concerns, his proposal was voted down. 

Worthington's district, which includes Telegraph Avenue, has vociferously opposed certain aspects of BRT, such as two-way traffic on Telegraph, which would affect street vendors and neighborhood businesses. 

“The absolutist so-called 'Full Build' option would be catastrophic to the city,” Worthington said. “It's outrageous that it was city staff who originally proposed something that AC Transit had never asked for. I think it's unfair for AC Transit to get the blame. We shouldn't be wasting staff or AC Transit's money on it.” 

The Downtown Berkeley Association has come out against dedicated bus lanes on the four blocks of the BRT route on Shattuck Avenue between Addison Street and Bancroft Way because of the loss of parking. 

A Feb. 10 Planning Commission recommendation had asked the Berkeley City Council to study the Bus Rapid Transit Full Build option, which includes making Telegraph two ways and creating dedicated downtown bus lanes, for possible endorsement, along with another alternative called Rapid Bus Plus and a “No Build” option. 

However the city's Planning Department staff proposed their own new set of recommendations at a March 10 meeting in light of new information about the decision process and continued opposition to the plans for Telegraph and downtown. 

City Planner Elizabeth Greene said that AC Transit had now indicated that cities would not have the ability to significantly modify any proposed Build option after federal and state environmental studies were completed, which would limit Berkeley's ability to pick and choose among the best components of a BRT route. 

AC Transit is expected to clarify this statement at Tuesday's meeting. 

City staff, Greene said, “already had concerns” about a two-way Telegraph north of Dwight and a two-way BRT on Bancroft Way above Dana Street. 

A staff report to the March Planning Commission meeting explained the short notice the commission received of the staff's proposed alternatives by saying that further evaluation of traffic flows and signal impacts and potential impacts to sidewalks, crosswalks and intersections showed numerous problems which would be impossible to fix through design changes. 

Studies for the Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan—which is supposed to enhance the downtown area-would also become limited based on the particular Build alignment proposed for downtown, the report said, adding that dedicated lanes in that area did not significantly benefit BRT. 

The changes suggested by staff to two-way Telegraph would maintain the Telegraph-Dana north-south pairing. Northbound buses would run in mixed flow on Telegraph—the same way the 1R AC Transit bus does right now—and southbound buses would run in dedicated lanes on Dana. 

City staff also recommended no dedicated lanes for downtown. Instead there would be raised platforms at curb stops—a dominant feature of BRT—which would be the same height as the buses themselves. 

“So that buses don't have to kneel—it speeds things up,” Greene said. “Kind of like getting on a BART train.” 

The Planning Commission voted 5-0-4 to accept the staff's recommendation if it indeed were not possible to change the Build option after the environmental study was completed and released as the staff reported. 

Planning Commissioner Patti Dacey said she supported the staff’s recommendation because it was “the lesser of the two evils.” 

“All of a sudden it looked like what we picked for study might end up being built,” said Dacey, whose vote provided the crucial fifth nod for the motion to pass. “The staff’s recommendation is much closer to what I wanted. I was afraid that if the Planning Commission voted Full Build, the City Council would vote Full Build as well.” 

Dacey said she personally preferred Rapid Bus Plus, which is being studied by AC Transit right now. 

“It just seemed like we didn't have enough information before us to make a good judgment,” said Planning Commissioner Jim Novosel, one of the four people who abstained. “My big picture goal is that whatever happens with BRT, the city coordinates that with changes to its one way streets around Telegraph to improve pedestrian safety and generally slow traffic down.” 

Planning Commissioner and transportation consultant Victoria Eisen, another abstainer, said that she encouraged the City Council “to keep an open mind and wait for the environmental analysis results before making decisions about the configuration of particular segments [of the route].”  

For various segments of the route, the City of Berkeley could decide to use some form of either BRT or Rapid Bus Plus, or not to build, ,Greene said. 

She said she was hopeful that the environmental review would be available by summer.  

AC Transit has asked for a final Locally Preferred Alternative or Build option from Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro—the three cities through which BRT will link a 17-mile route-by April. 

The agency is working under a deadline for a $75 million federal grant, $15 million of which it has already received.