Even as the Oakland City Council voted to support AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit plan Tuesday evening, Berkeley residents rallied vociferously against it at their council meeting, prompting Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates to say around 10:30 p.m. he would try to glue together the best parts of BRT to address the community's concerns.
The City Council is expected to meet at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 29, at Longfellow Middle School to vote on the possibility of forwarding a Build option to AC Transit for environmental review.
The San Leandro City Council has postponed its decision to May 19.
The 8 p.m. time specific April 21 meeting to present and discuss the Build option saw an overwhelming number of people opposing a two-way Telegraph and dedicated bus lanes in downtown Berkeley—proposals they said would drive customers away from businesses and harm street vendors.
Berkeley has been discussing some version of bus rapid transit for almost 20 years.
Part of a larger project that will link San Leandro, Oakland and Berkeley, the current BRT proposal promises to make transit faster and more reliable for its patrons than it has been on the busiest bus corridor in the East Bay.
Bonny Nelson from Nelson/Nygaard, the transportation consultants hired by AC Transit to study the Build alternative, said that BRT seeks to increase ridership by increasing efficiency with bus-only lanes, pre-paid tickets and boarding islands.
BRT would replace the current Rapid Bus service. Average BRT stops would be three to four bus stops apart. More than 100 existing parking spots are estimated to be lost in at least one segment of the proposed BRT.
Although the Berkeley Planning Commission recommended that the City Council study the Bus Rapid Transit Full Build option, along with another alternative called Rapid Bus Plus--which would not have dedicated lanes or involve extensive restructuring—along with a “No Build” option, Planning Department staff proposed their own set of recommendations which they feel will mitigate some of the concerns for Telegraph and downtown.
City staff is suggesting that both sets of recommendations be forwarded to AC Transit.
Just as in the past, and over the course of countless Planning Commission meetings, the most vocal opposition came from the street vendors on Telegraph, the tiny but venerable arts and craft community who sell everything from ballerinas from Russia to necklaces from Madagascar, who claim that two-way traffic would lead to more gridlock, eventually forcing them to move away.
“Parking fee increases and loss of parking have already led to businesses closing,” said Astor Silverstein, a Telegraph vendor. “If BRT is implemented, many more businesses will be forced to close. Even without BRT parking is already affected. Tourists and shoppers don't come to look at BRT—why would they come to a half-dead town and spend a fortune on parking when they can get free parking in a shopping mall?”
Michael Katz, a member of the city's Rapid Bus Plus coalition, urged the council to work with him on the alternative plan.
The Telegraph Business Improvement District and the Downtown Berkeley Association have opposed BRT. So have the Willard, LeConte and the Claremont-Elmwood neighborhood associations.
A few people spoke in support of BRT, arguing that it would lead to more reliable bus service and improvements for the disability community. At least five people supported the Build option in letters, along with TransForm, a transit advocacy group.
A number of people said they were bewildered that the city was still considering the Build option despite the amount of opposition it has received till date.
“I hope this project is not directed by the flow of money,” said Janet Klein, who has been a street vendor on Telegraph for 30 year. “Where is the legitimacy to push this plan forward against the wishes of the community?”
“This basically feels like an invasion,” said Twig, another Telegraph regular. “You can't really mess with Telegraph. It's very sensitive. Most people come to Telegraph because of the way it is. They like all the craziness.”
Some called BRT a “subway on rubber wheels rather than steel wheels.”
Others were more harsh in their criticisms.
“How many mayors and millions of public tax dollars wasted by AC Transit on a senseless project, and paid consultants, and collusion between AC Transit and misguided city staff does it take to screw in a BRT?” asked Berkeley resident Scott Tolmie. “Where's the humor? Sorry. There is none.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, whose district includes Telegraph Avenue, said he was frustrated that two decades of discussions around BRT had resulted in this,
“BRT is a great idea if we provided free transit for the employers of every business on the corridor,” he said. “If it connects to Amtrack or the ferry. After all these meetings, where is the corridor connection?”
Worthington called BRT something that looks good on paper but not in reality.
“Why would I study cutting off five of my fingers?” he said. “And these fingers are the street vendors, the businesses, the residents, the disabled people and the frail and the elderly.”
After listening to more than two hours of commentary Mayor Tom Bates said that that although a lot of people want to stop BRT “I don't know if it makes sense.” Other councilmembers expressed some reservations about the plan.
“I'll be thinking about how I'd like to see things go,” Bates said.”We should not be afraid to look at alternatives.”