Careening Out of Control 

AC Transit proposes to confiscate two lanes on Telegraph and International for use as full-time bus lanes.

Say what you will about Telegraph Avenue and International Boulevard: They are perhaps the last two major streets in the East Bay's urban core not afflicted with the crippling gridlock that has made our lives so wonderful. The startling growth of the last decade, combined with various means of diverting traffic away from residential neighborhoods with speed bumps and concrete barriers, has turned most arteries into roiling, ulcer-inducing stop-and-go aggravations. But for some reason, you can still cruise along both streets without as much effort.

Of course, your government can't let something like that persist, so officials with AC Transit are studying a proposal to screw this up. The bus agency has plans to remove two lanes of car traffic from both streets and dedicate them exclusively to buses, jamming traffic into the remaining lanes and making your life suck in yet another way. The proposal would join Telegraph and International in a single dedicated-lane bus route, which means that at both ends neither street would allow cars at all. That would force drivers to venture into neighborhoods studded with traffic diverters, looking for a way around the new barriers. Leaders in Berkeley and San Leandro are screaming that they'll never let such a plan go forward, but AC Transit planners are pushing ahead anyway.

Of course, things didn't have to get so tense. AC Transit has just about finished a perfectly sound project to make the buses go faster along San Pablo Avenue, and it didn't involve removing car traffic from lanes or pissing off everyone in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro. But critics, including former AC Transit boardmembers Matt Williams, Miriam Hawley, and John Woodbury, claim that the bus agency has redirected $20 million partly earmarked to finish the San Pablo project toward its ill-fated Telegraph/International snafu. In other words, AC Transit has taken millions from a project that everyone loves, and applied it to a project everyone will hate.

This story dates back all the way to 1995, to the great wars between Emeryville and everyone else, when Kaiser Permanente announced plans to move its Oakland hospital to what is now the site of Pixar. Neighboring cities howled that once again Emeryville's develop-at-any-cost policies would make traffic and parking a nightmare for Berkeley and Oakland. Once Kaiser backed out of the deal, Emeryville found other ways to foul up local traffic, but AC Transit officials proposed working together to improve bus service on San Pablo, which runs through each city.

Thus was born the San Pablo "rapid bus service" project, a fancy term for an effort to make the experience of riding the bus something other than a nightmare. Before the rapid bus project came along, riding the San Pablo line took forever, and the bus stops were just ugly, windswept poles with a sign. Over the last eight years, cities throughout the San Pablo corridor, in conjunction with AC Transit and the Congestion Management Agency, set out to change that. The main problem, they discovered, was that elderly passengers couldn't push open the exit doors in the back of the bus, so they wobbled up to the front doors, slowing down other riders. In addition, the avenue's traffic lights weren't coordinated to let buses race through the corridor.

A new fleet of buses changed all that. Now passengers can get on and off through three different doors, which open at the push of a button. The fare-paying process was automated, so drivers could concentrate solely on driving, and traffic signals were coordinated to speed the buses along. The project was a huge success, and the time it takes to get from Point A to Point B has been shaved by 40 percent since the system came online in 2001. All that remained was the second part of the plan: a system of shelters and improved street lighting, so that elderly passengers had a safe place to wait for the bus. And AC Transit just happened to have $20 million from Measure B, a sales tax passed in 2000, to build them.

But just as voters were passing Measure B, planners inside AC Transit were growing infatuated with the dedicated-lane idea. Although the concept has barely been tested in cities around the country, AC Transit boardmember Chris Peeples claims that agency planners associate dedicated lanes with light rail, the mass transit commonly associated with middle-class commuters. Whether out of a desire to emulate European boulevards or a fondness for transit innovation for its own sake, AC Transit staff cooked up a plan to implement the lanes along Telegraph and International.

Remarkably few of the bus agency's directors even knew what its own staff was doing with their money. When asked to comment, AC Transit board president Joe Wallace claimed to know nothing of the transfer of funds, Peeples claims that he only heard about it months after the fact, and boardmember Greg Harper was practically clueless. "I gather that there was money left over and AC Transit considered that the job was done," Harper says.

And they have a surprisingly big pot of money to play with. Last March, the voters approved a rise in Bay Bridge tolls to pay for a number of transportation projects, including $65 million to improve bus service on the Telegraph/International line. So former AC Transit director Matt Williams was shocked to discover that staff at AC Transit had quietly taken the $20 million from Measure B and redirected it exclusively to the Telegraph Avenue project. "Moving the $20 million without anybody being asked if it was okay -- that shouldn't have happened," he says.

In fairness, Peeples points out that as far as AC Transit was concerned, it already had done its part on the San Pablo project. After all, he says, slapping bus shelters on street corners is usually the job of city public works departments. On the other hand, Peeples adds, dedicated lanes cost at least fourteen times what the San Pablo project cost, and the rapid bus service has already improved AC Transit's efficiency. "The San Pablo project has been enormously successful," he says.

Peeples adds that trying to convince host cities to give up two lanes of car traffic will be a tremendous political headache. San Leandro Mayor Sheila Young says her city will never let such a plan go through. "We don't want it," she says. "That's pretty simple, isn't it? Parts of our downtown are only two lanes wide. So we don't think it's appropriate to use city streets for that."

Peeples claims that at least for now, AC Transit's official policy is to go ahead with the dedicated lanes. But as civic leaders learn of the plan and start to raise hell, that could easily change. AC Transit deputy general manager Jim Gleich says the agency is merely studying the dedicated-lane concept and is still open to a wide variety of options on Telegraph and International, including the rapid bus service that has been so successful on San Pablo. They might even give back some of the money to the San Pablo project, he adds.

AC Transit finally did something right, and yet its officials seem intent upon ignoring the lessons they learned on San Pablo. It looks like dedicated lanes are just niftier than shelters for old people.

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