AC Transit to hold hearings on far cheaper-than-rail BRT plan
- Published Sunday, June 4, 2007, by the Oakland Tribune
Bus rapid transit a hit worldwide
AC Transit will hold hearings this month for its '1 Line' proposal
By Erik N. Nelson
It may be difficult for progressive trailblazing Bay Area leaders to
stomach, but they're learning a lesson from Los Angeles about public
That lesson is called bus rapid transit and it's on the lips of
transportation officials from the marble halls of Washington, D.C.,
to the dirt-paved slums of South America. The place it seems to work
phenomenally well is through the sun-soaked autopolis of L.A.'s San
The Orange Line, as it is known, uses natural-gas powered buses along
an exclusive busway, with limited stops and passengers paying before
they board to speed loading and unloading. With stations rather than
mere stops, it resembles some of San Jose's light rail lines, only
without the rails or streetcars.
"The Orange Line in Los Angeles is really one of the first full BRT
systems to open in the country," explained Bill Vincent, who runs the
Bus Rapid Transit program for the D.C.-based environmental nonprofit
Breakthrough Technologies Group. "It has been remarkably successful;
it was projected to carry 22,000 daily riders in theyear 2020 and it
achieved that number within the first six months or so, so it
completely blew away expectations."
While the Bay Area, with BART, Muni and two dozen other transit
agencies, might have higher expectations of public transportation,
AC Transit is betting it can make this international phenomenon work
in the East Bay.
The East Bay bus agency is gearing up for a series of hearings this
month for its proposed 1 Line service, designated after the old Key
System trolleys that ran between Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro
on the same route along Telegraph Avenue and East 14th Street (now
International Boulevard in Oakland).
While AC Transit has been talking about the idea since the 1980s
and working on it in earnest since 1999, "the whole idea has really
come of age in America," said Chris Peeples, who has served on
AC Transit's governing board since the project began.
Bus rapid transit is unique among transportation alternatives.
Priorities often divide decision-makers along ideological lines.
Liberals push for mass transit, conservatives seek highway funding;
advocates for the poor agitate for more bus service for those who
can't afford cars, while environmentalists lobby for expensive new
railways to coax SUV owners off suburban freeways.
BRT seems to have united some of those competing interests.
"It combines social justice with Republican interests," Peeples said,
by improving bus service while at the same time reducing the cost of
new mass transit construction subsidies that Republicans have sought
to economize on [BATN: in order to preserve maximum funding for
"There's been (Bush) administration support for these things, and
we managed to get into the latest authorization of the latest
transportation bill," tapping a Department of Transportation program
called New Starts, usually reserved for rail projects, for
The East Bay BRT Project, estimated to cost between $310 million and
$400 million (the cost of barely four miles of BART tracks), already
has $175 million set aside from a combination of state and local
dollars, bridge toll funds and local transportation sales taxes.
While budget-cutters have endorsed the idea, environmentalists have
also warmed up to light rail without the rails.
"Rational decisions have to be based on costs, benefits and potential
to reduce emissions," said Sergio Sanchez, executive director of the
Washington-based Clean Air Institute. "BRTs are becoming very popular
because they have demonstrated their effectiveness in different parts
of the world."
In fact, bus rapid transit is the only type of public transportation
that can earn global warming-fighting credits under Kyoto Protocols,
which seek international cooperation to cut down on greenhouse gases.
The United States has yet to agree to abide by those rules, however.
While AC Transit seems to have this point in history on its side,
it now has to get through an always-difficult environmental review
process to keep to its plan to start construction by late 2008 or
early 2009 and have the line running by 2011.
Homeowners in Berkeley fret that traffic diverted from bus-only lanes
will sift through their neighborhoods. Other homeowners worry that
if the streetscape-transforming concept is successful in their quiet
neighborhoods, their character might become more dense, more urban.
Meanwhile, the city of San Leandro has thrown a wrench into the
process in recent years by declaring its opposition to making lanes
on East 14th Street car-free. The dedicated bus lanes would snarl
traffic and cause problems for pedestrians, they concluded, so AC
Transit is now planning a scaled-back version of BRT once it reaches
San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos is careful to note that he needs to
convey the position taken by the City Council. On the other hand, he
thinks the council ought to re-open that debate.
"We're on a threshold I believe on changing the mode of travel in the
Bay Area," Santos said. "High gas prices are forcing some people to
rethink their positions."
Contact Erik Nelson at enelson@... or (510) 208-6410.
Read his Capricious Commuter blog at