Bus Rapid Transit — the ambitious, three-city project that AC Transit once hoped would create a light-rail-like bus line through the core transit corridor of the inner East Bay — is still on the agency's drawing board, but in a decidedly compressed form. Faced with stiff and spirited opposition from a vocal group of Telegraph Avenue merchants and residents, AC Transit planners have eliminated the Berkeley portion from the proposed project. In addition, reluctance from San Leandro City Council members to reorganize their main downtown street means that BRT will only extend a "couple of miles" into that city. BRT, in short, is now projected to be almost exclusively an Oakland affair.
At its inception more than a decade ago, the $242 million BRT construction project was designed to connect the downtown and mall districts of San Leandro with downtown Oakland and Berkeley primarily by carving out rapid-speed bus-only lanes in the middle of East 14th Street, International Boulevard, and Telegraph Avenue. Other light-rail-like features were to include raised, sheltered bus stops, all-door boarding to replace the front-door-only loading of current bus lines, ticket-purchasing outside the bus rather than individual payment (and the resulting long lines) to bus drivers, and priority traffic signaling to speed the buses along their way.
Last April, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to recommend most of BRT's features in Berkeley except for the most controversial — dedicating the center lanes of Telegraph Avenue to bus-only traffic and thus leaving just one lane for cars in each direction with fewer parking spots. Instead, the council said its preferred alternative was for bus passenger loading along Telegraph to remain on the right-hand side of the road.
AC Transit representative Cory Lavigne told council members on the night of their decision that because the right-curb boarding had not been included in AC Transit's original draft environmental study of the BRT system — and, therefore, the public had not been given the opportunity to officially comment on such an alternative in the environmental study process — it could not legally be included in the final draft documents. As a result, AC Transit now only plans to run dedicated center lanes with raised, sheltered platforms up to the Berkeley border on Telegraph, with the buses continuing into downtown Berkeley as they currently do, with no BRT amenities.
Still, Berkeley City Councilmember and longtime public transit advocate Kriss Worthington expressed surprise last week when he was informed that Berkeley's preferred version of right-curb-boarding BRT would not be included in the final proposal. "But if it's a question of doing it [AC Transit's] way or not doing it all, then it's better that Berkeley is dropped altogether," Worthington said in a phone interview. "Their way made no sense. It would have drastically disrupted businesses and street vendors along Telegraph."
Worthington said he will "continue to remain actively involved" in the project, calling Telegraph Avenue "a complete corridor" between Oakland and Berkeley. "There are a lot of things we can do to improve it." However, Worthington's participation will probably have to be on an unofficial basis in the future.
Along with eliminating Berkeley from any BRT project, AC Transit is now considering dropping Berkeley representation from its BRT Policy Advisory Committee. The group of transit, city, and county elected officials met frequently in 2009 and early 2010 in the run-up to the first round of city council consideration of the project. While dropping Berkeley representation from the group has logic to it — given that Berkeley will no longer have a BRT component — the two Berkeley representatives formerly on the advisory group, Worthington and Mayor Tom Bates, were the most enthusiastic public transit advocates on board, and were the driving force behind advisory council meetings. Their departure leaves the advisory council distinctly short on leadership.
Oakland City Councilman — and now council president — Larry Reid rarely if ever attended advisory council meetings or sent an aide to sit in. Former AC Transit Board member and current Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan was the second Oakland elected official on the BRT advisory council. While Kaplan's history of public transit advocacy and her former position with AC Transit makes it likely that she would take a lead in promoting BRT, Reid's lack of enthusiasm about the project may become a factor when it comes back to the Oakland City Council for final approval.
Since the project involves major changes within lane alignments of Oakland and San Leandro streets, council approval in both cities will be required, along with requests for council approval to fund what AC Transit calls a "full complement" of road repaving, crosswalks, and bike lanes that are expected to accompany the BRT line. With city finances in short supply, especially in Oakland, getting the council to approve money for the BRT street changes is expected to take some heavy lifting.
As for San Leandro, BRT buses are still projected to run all the way down East 14th Street to Davis Street and then to the San Leandro BART station. However, the system plans to run dedicated center-lane buses only about two miles into the city, stopping short of the downtown district. AC Transit plans a right-curb BRT station at the corner of Davis and East 14th, with another BRT station at San Leandro BART.
Meanwhile, the long delays in the project — now more than a decade in the planning — has caused at least one veteran AC Transit board member to publicly express some impatience with the process. "We've been given a target date of this spring" to complete the final federal and state environmental documents, at-large Director Chris Peeples said in a phone interview. "But we've been given a lot of target dates."
Still, despite the downsizing and delays, BRT is hanging on. In the fall of 2009, some observers thought BRT was on the ropes after AC Transit board members hastily voted to shift dedicated BRT construction money to its operating budget to stave off looming service cuts after the district declared a fiscal emergency over a pending $57 million budget deficit. Then-AC Transit General Manager Rick Fernandez would only tell board members at the time, "We're hopeful that we can still keep the BRT project alive" despite the funding raid. And while South Alameda County board member Jeff Davis, who made the motion to approve the fund-swap proposal, said that "this is no reflection of my support for BRT," he acknowledged that "many people think this means the death knell of BRT. It does not."
BRT has survived the funding cut so far. And AC Transit BRT Project Manager Jim Cunradi told Oakland Local last month that the project — which he says was one of the few public transit construction projects to start out fully funded — now has only a "small funding gap," although he failed to be specific about the amount.