The big debate on Bus Rapid Transit in city council has finally begun. The games began in earnest on March 23 in Council chambers when Mr. Bates and possibly others delivered their first stomach blow to the public by scheduling the item in such a way as to guarantee it would not come up until about twenty minutes to midnight, after droves of people had waited four to six hours to speak and many had left. This was acknowledged by councilmember Kriss Worthington, who referred to it as profoundly "disrespectful" to the public, and moved that an entire council meeting be dedicated to this important subject. So, on April 20 at 8pm the public will get their hearing, and on April 27, the Council will vote on whether to submit the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) in its current form to AC Transit for official study in the Environmental Impact Report.
Tom Bates attempted to put the Council's upcoming vote "into perspective" for a public eager to speak out against lane removal on Telegraph. He pointed out that they were only voting on "what was to be studied" but stopped short of actually saying the words that the city would be able to pick and choose from aspects of a build option, especially when it comes to things like lane removal on Telegraph. Clearly he wanted to say that, but his voice became muffled and the words didn't actually come out. It was good he didn't say those words, because in this case it isn't true. Normally on an EIR project, decisionmakers would have this freedom, but in a display of timing which seems tactical, AC Transit revealed only days before the March 23 meeting that certain restrictions on their federal funding mean that the dedicated bus lane aspect of the proposal cannot be dropped or selectively modified down without triggering the need for a re-study. This is very important, because it means that the “build option” is rendered inflexible with regard to lane removal on Telegraph. So Berkeley can either accept that aspect, or reject the entire build option after the EIR is completed. In other words, it IS important whether or not lane removal is in the LPA at this stage in the game. If it is NOT in, the city will have at least some options for selecting elements of a build-based BRT. If it IS in, the build option may be DOA due to the enormous public opposition in the impact zone to this particular part of the BRT proposal. The other options being studied by AC in the EIR are a locally proposed Rapid Bus Plus plan and a ‘do nothing’ alternative. Both of these are considered no-build alternatives, and in themselves do not require an EIR.
It is important to note that although Tom Bates would like to trap public opposition to BRT behind two knights and a queen procedurally, public opposition to this plan is so profound in the neighborhoods around Telegraph that this may not be possible. Every neighborhood association in the area has formally adopted positions in opposition to the full build proposal, as has every merchant association. And this is still only the tip of the iceberg, for the majority of the public in these neighborhoods still do not even have this on their radar. But those who would say “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it” have another very good reason to loathe this project. This project is a veritable poster child for the modern concept of a bad idea which hides behind a green blanket. In fact, the core problem with this project is that the developmenal incentive is so enormous that the merit of this as a practical transportation plan is in dire danger of not being properly considered. The key point of developmental incentivization from an infrastructural point of view is the floating bus stop islands (also referred to as "stations") which accompany the lane dedication concept. This aspect is the trigger for reclassification of Telegraph as a Major Transportation Corridor under state rules, dramatically redefining limits for developmental height, density, and for the ability of preservation instruments to protect historic resources (see new developmental incentives for Major Transportation Corridors under recent state legislation SB375).
Another important factor is irreversibility. City staff revealed in written Q & A after the Willard Neighborhood meeting that once a dedicated lane BRT system is built, the only entity with the contractual authority to remove it is AC Transit. Whereas this is understandable and reasonable with regard to the needs and obligations of AC Transit, it does dispel the idea that if this BRT idea doesn't work that it can be removed, another deflective idea propagated by Tom Bates.
Precedents should be carefully considered in upcoming debates. BRT systems involving lane removal in other cities have either worked well or been catastrophic failures depending on the specific aspects of the specific situations into which they have been imposed. One factor in the potential for success appears to be the ratio of collateralized traffic needs to alternative routes of equal or greater efficiency. With regard to freeway access from southeast Berkeley, Telegraph is the most efficient option without an equal or better alternate for motorists. By contrast San Francisco light rail works well because it allows for transportation incentivization through arduous downtown parking without interfering with the ability of auto traffic to move. Freeway access is efficiently preserved for the central city, for example, via four lanes either way along Oak and Fell. In contrast, Berkeley's alternative routes to freeway access from Willard, Le Conte, and Halcyon are poor.
Another indicator may be the demographic spread for potential mode shift. Most people do not travel to downtown in Berkeley to shop, but to a variety of locations. It cannot be therefore considered as a centralized destination for local traffic from people who are chaining errands. Clearly the only demographic or potential demographic which can be clearly targeted by this BRT is commuters to and from downtown and to UC Berkeley campus from points south to go to school or to work. But it can also be argued that this group is already incentivized to near the maximum to take the bus because the entire city of Berkeley is preferential parking. All other types of motorists are discriminated against egregiously by this proposal.
The support for a BRT idea in Berkeley has come generally from voices outside of the area impacted, from other stakeholders for whom elite consensus is driving this project, and from members of the commuter demographic that could be equally benefited by a Rapid Bus Plus style of plan. UC is also now chiming in with a position in favor of BRT, because it is no doubt deemed as beneficial to its long term development goals. Yet it is a non-controversial fact that UC shows little precedent for caring about the needs or concerns of the larger community. With opposition this intense in the area to be impacted by this plan, it makes little sense to pursue such an idea if there is not irrefutable indication that it is going to work well, or that it is for some reason essential. If Berkeley is placed in the corner of having to decide now on an all or nothing build option with regard to lane removal, then it should take the lane removal out of the LPA now as is consistent with being in that position, if it finds confidence is low in this aspect of the plan.
Joseph Stubbs lives in the Willard neighborhood.