Bumps in the Road 

AC Transit pushes ahead on its Bus Rapid Transit project despite questionable benefits and potential problems for neighborhoods.

It's not yet rush hour on a breezy, sunny Wednesday afternoon, but the streets of International Boulevard in Oakland's Fruitvale district are already clogged. Moms pushing kids in strollers, folks getting off work, and men hawking ice cream from their carts fill the sidewalks, while cars, buses, and trucks jam roads trying to cross or get through the commercial district of this heavily populated area.

The traffic jam is exactly why AC Transit thinks its Bus Rapid Transit project will be a success. It's also exactly why many others think the plan is a disaster. That's because BRT calls for taking the two center lanes along some of the East Bay's busiest four-lane thoroughfares and making them bus-only. The bus line would run roughly seventeen miles along East 14th Street, International Boulevard, and Telegraph Avenue from San Leandro through Oakland, ending in downtown Berkeley, and would significantly affect neighborhoods along the route.

The project's main selling point is that riders would get around faster. Buses would arrive more often, stop farther apart, and interact with traffic signals to avoid having to slow down. To avoid fare-paying delays, riders would prepurchase tickets from kiosks located on station platforms in the middle of the road, and auditors would occasionally board buses to check for scofflaws. If approved by all three cities, BRT project manager Jim Cunradi says, the new system could break ground in 2009 and be complete by 2011.

Cunradi insists the changes will improve the experience for present-day riders and that it will boost ridership by 4,600 to 9,300 trips per weekday. But a recently released draft Environmental Impact Report suggests that the benefits may not be terribly significant, given the project's cost. And, with public comment on the draft report set to close on July 3, many residents of affected neighborhoods are unaware of the plan's specifics. (The report is available on AC Transit's Web site.)

Most East Bay residents support public transit, in spirit at least. But liberal ideals and harsh realities are likely to clash over the dedicated lanes, which are by far the most ambitious of the project's components. Besides traffic and parking issues, the time savings and environmental benefits detailed in the draft EIR are questionable, slim, and in some cases nonexistent.

Meanwhile, nearby homeowners who know of the plan's details fear what is probably inevitable: With car traffic down to one lane in each direction on Telegraph and International, drivers stuck at major intersections will seek shortcuts through residential streets.

AC Transit says it plans to mitigate congestion in intersections by adding lanes, adjusting signal timing, restriping, or possibly widening roads. There are at least four key intersections, however, where these impacts cannot be fixed: International Boulevard and High Street, High Street and San Leandro Boulevard, Alcatraz and Telegraph avenues, and Fulton Street and Bancroft Way. If the cities can live with the impacts, Cunradi says, the transit agency will forge ahead.

Roy Alper is a local developer and vice president of the business improvement district for Temescal, a neighborhood that could be profoundly affected. While his group supports Bus Rapid Transit, he says the draft EIR improperly analyzes key intersections, including those at the Rockridge/Temescal border where Claremont, Telegraph, and 51st Street converge. The report states that the intersections operate at a "generally acceptable" level of service.

Alper begs to differ. "The removal of two traffic lanes will create complete gridlock," he says. He believes the problem could be handled by making the bus lanes nonexclusive in those intersections.

But traffic along the entire route could worsen further if AC Transit keeps the existing bus lines, which stop about every two blocks, in the auto lanes. Another proposal is to combine the existing and new bus lines into one that uses the bus-only lanes but stops every one-third mile, rather than every half-mile, as currently proposed for the BRT line.

Vincent Casalaina, a TV producer and president of the Willard Neighborhood Association, speaking on his own behalf, concurs that AC Transit's data is unreliable. For instance, a traffic analysis that was only partially included in the draft EIR claimed drivers attempting to reach downtown Berkeley from Woolsey and Telegraph would turn left on Ashby and right on Shattuck. Casalaina counters that Parker Street is the obvious shortcut. "How can we believe the traffic analysis when we know on some level it's totally wrong?" he asks.

Dedicated lanes would also reduce parking: The plan for in-road station platforms would eliminate 945 to 1,300 street spaces. Cunradi claims the impact wouldn't be so bad since many of the spots in question often sit unoccupied. Not so in Temescal, one of Oakland's fastest-growing commercial districts, where parking already can be a challenge. Under one BRT option, the district would lose more than 65 percent of its metered parking along the business corridor. "We feel that's totally impractical under the circumstances, and they need to come up with replacement parking," Alper says. He means a parking lot. AC Transit's solution: Add time restrictions or plant meters along side streets.

Alper is also concerned that the study ignored the neighborhood's most-used crosswalks across Telegraph: those at 50th, 51st, and 45th streets. Instead, the wonks looked at 48th, 52nd, and 55th streets — which he calls a "pedestrian wasteland."

Alper's business group detailed its concerns in a letter to AC Transit prior to the draft Environmental Impact Report, but he says the concerns were "completely disregarded," despite the agency's assurances. "Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District is strongly supportive of the Bus Rapid Transit system," he says. "We think it's a real plus for the city, the community, and for the environment. We just want it to be done right."

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