In late January, the federal government allocated $15 million to AC Transit's proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project Of all the Small Starts projects funded for 2011, this is the only one rated “high," which means it is the most cost-effective of all those projects. This sign of support from the Obama administration shows we can expect more federal funding in the future.
The city of Oakland has been pushing to have BRT include pedestrian improvements along the route, such as wider sidewalks and bulb-outs at crossings. Oakland hopes that BRT with pedestrian improvements will be a key to revitalizing the corridor economically, and AC Transit has agreed to pursue a separate source of federal funding for these improvements, which will provide funding for pedestrian improvements in Berkeley also.
Berkeley's voters showed their overwhelming support of BRT in 2008 when 77 % voted no on KK, which was put on the ballot by the same people who continue to organize against BRT in Berkeley.
Despite all this support, there is a noisy minority in Berkeley who oppose BRT and who have been spreading distortions about it.
A recent opinion piece in the Daily Planet claimed that "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."
I have asked AC Transit planners about this, and they have confirmed that it is not true. The op-ed writer apparently was confused because AC recently asked cities to include all possible variations of the build alternative in their LPA. Shifting from the build alternative that is in the FEIR to a different build alternative that is not in the FEIR would require supplemental study. But removing dedicated lanes and shifting from the build alternative in the FEIR to the RapidBus Plus or No-Build alternative, which are also in the FEIR, would not require supplemental study.
The noisy minority claim to represent the people of Berkeley for two reasons.
First, the noisy minority says that nearby neighborhood groups are against BRT. At every hearing, you can expect at least one person to say: "I went to a neighborhood meeting, and people were against BRT."
But neighborhood groups generally attract residents who want to protect their own self-interest. No doubt, there are more idealistic people living in the neighborhoods, but they are more likely to join environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, which supports this BRT project.
The vote on Measure KK tells us what the real majority of neighborhood residents believe. The same neighborhood residents who now oppose BRT also campaigned for Measure KK, but even in precincts immediately adjacent to the BRT route, 68% voted no on KK. Look beyond the neighborhood group members to all the voters, and you will see that those neighborhoods support BRT by a margin of more than two-to-one.
Second, the noisy minority says that large numbers of people turn out at city meetings to oppose BRT. In fact, it seems that a small core of organizers are stirring up this opposition to BRT.
For example, shortly before the Planning Commission hearing on Bus Rapid Transit, a Telegraph Ave. business sent email to its customers saying they should oppose BRT because “Even the environmental report indicates that traffic will increase beyond any standard threshold in no less than 30 locations in Berkeley during commute hours.”
This claim is completely false. The DEIR says clearly that BRT will not cause a significant degradation of level of service at any intersection in Berkeley.
The email had a number of other blatant falsehoods, but we cannot blame this business for them, because the email also said that these are “the facts as they have been presented to us by local concerned citizens.”
Anyone who follows local politics knows that it is easier to organize against a proposed change than to organize for it. If "concerned citizens" use scare tactics among those who are immediately impacted, they will have no trouble getting a few dozen people out to speak at a city meeting on any issue.
But a few dozen people do not make a majority. If you want to know what the majority thinks, you should put an issue on the ballot. The majority of Berkeley voters care about the environment, and they showed their overwhelming support for BRT when this issue was on the ballot and 77% voted against Measure KK.
Charles Siegel is a Berkeley resident and environmental activist.