The Oakland City Council unanimously approved AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit project Tuesday night for East Oakland, after insisting upon a voluntary hire-Oakland preference provision for project workers that everyone agreed was non-enforceable under federal law.
The vote was the last political hurdle for the $150-$175 million project that is expected to run a light-rail-like bus system down the middle of International Boulevard between downtown Oakland and San Leandro by 2016. The Berkeley City Council has already rejected BRT, effectively eliminating the proposed system between downtown Oakland and downtown Berkeley. In addition, opposition from North Oakland residents and merchants persuaded AC Transit officials to drop the downtown-Oakland-to-Berkeley-border portion of the project. And earlier this month, the San Leandro City Council restricted BRT's bus-only lanes in that city to just two blocks inside the San Leandro city limit. The project now returns to the AC Transit Board of Directors for an expected final approval.
In seconding the motion for the Oakland City Council to approve the project, Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents the Fruitvale District in East Oakland, said that the "economic infusion [that BRT construction will bring] will definitely help International Boulevard."
Following the vote, AC Transit General Manager David Armijo issued a statement: "The council's action is a great win for our transit infrastructure. This is an investment in the region that will improve air quality, enhance service reliability, upgrade streets along the corridor and make smoother, quicker commutes."
Missing from Tuesday night's council vote because of a family emergency was Oakland At-Large Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, who has been BRT's most active supporter on the council, and oversaw the early development of the project during her years as an AC Transit Board Director.
Close to 30 public speakers addressed the Council on the issue, with support for BRT running 3-1 over those opposed. Absent from the public presentations were residents of the Allen Temple Arms senior citizen facility at 82nd and International, as well as Allen Temple Baptist Church's associate pastor Daniel Buford, who had been among BRT's most vocal critics in recent months.
Without debate, the council approved additions that had been added earlier by Kaplan and Councilmember Pat Kernighan that added a mitigation fund to reimburse businesses along the proposed BRT route for possible revenue loss due to parking spot reduction and other causes.
It was the Councilwoman Desley Brooks' proposed local-hire provision that got the most discussion. Saying that "it is important that Oaklanders get jobs" growing out of the BRT construction, Brooks told AC Transit General Manager Armijo that she had "been a longtime supporter of BRT until last night, after I had a conversation with one of your board members who expressed concerns about your local hiring practices." She said that she did not believe AC Transit had "a good record" with regard to local hiring, with Council President Larry Reid adding that also applied to AC Transit's use of local and women contractors for its construction projects.
But when several councilmembers as well as AC Transit representatives pointed out that BRT is being financed largely with federal funds-and federal guidelines ban mandatory local hiring provisions-the council added language to its approval that AC Transit should "encourage prime and subcontractors [on the BRT project] to voluntarily hire local residents." The provision has no enforcement mechanism.
Reid remained skeptical about the impact of the project on his district even as he voted in favor, saying that he was worried how the elimination of parking along the route will affect proposed high-rise residential-retail developments between 94th and 96th avenues and at 105th Avenue on the International Boulevard corridor.
AC Transit is expected to spend the next two years in engineering design, with construction slated to begin in late 2014.