Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why BRT is on Berkeley's ballot

The two pieces on BRT below---Oram's op-ed and Bruce Kaplan's letter to the editor---are from the Berkeley Daily Planet. As Oram says, "Thank goodness we have a local newspaper that permits lively debates on local issues!" Too bad San Francisco can't say the same. 

While Oram, Kaplan, and others gathered the signatures to get Measure KK on the ballot in Berkeley, SF progressives slumber on complacently under the illusion that the Geary BRT will be a "progressive" step forward for the city's primary East-West traffic artery.

Notice how both Oram and Kaplan mention the implications for development the BRT proposal has, something that has been ignored here in Progressive Land, where the Planning Department's false "transit corridors" theory goes unchallenged and highrise development gets the prog seal of approval by Supervisor Mirkarimi and a majority on the Board of Supervisors, which is behaving a lot like the Berkeley City Council.

Why Is Measure KK on the Ballot?
By Mary Oram
Thursday October 30, 2008

The arguments that have appeared against Measure KK (Berkeley’s initiative to give you a vote on future street conversions) do not hold up.

Measure KK was qualified for the ballot by a group of Berkeley citizens from all over town who came together out of frustration over trying to have some positive input into AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit (“BRT”) project. I learned about the proposed BRT on Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues approximately two years ago. I started attending meetings, workshops, hearings, etc.

The vast majority of people speaking at these meetings were opposed to the proposed route and configuration and made their concerns known. They have written many letters to the editor and commentaries on this subject that have appeared in the Daily Planet. (Thank goodness we have a local newspaper that permits lively debates on local issues!) AC Transit issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (“DEIR”) and we responded with our concerns as individuals. The cost was originally given as $400 million. (Later this was reduced verbally to $250 million, then $235 million.) But the BRT plan kept rolling along.

Last year, AC Transit inaugurated the 1R “Rapid Bus” service along the proposed BRT route, in addition to a local bus route 1. The 1R runs Monday through Friday using big, double VanHool buses with stops that are approximately one third of a mile apart. The local 1 stops are approximately two blocks apart.

At some point the current group, known as Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options (BBTOP), coalesced and came to the conclusion that we needed to take more steps if we were going to have our serious concerns represented.

We had goals, one of which was to let the greater Berkeley community—and not just the informed few—know about BRT and the problems we see with it.

The major problems are reducing the capacity of Telegraph Avenue to one lane in each direction for all but bus traffic and eliminating approximately 75 percent of the parking on Telegraph from Alcatraz north to Bancroft Way. We proposed a modification to the Rapid Bus, called “Rapid Bus Plus,” to add all the benefits of BRT except the lane closures and mid-street stations. We met with AC Transit and other stakeholders to present this plan. But the BRT plan kept rolling along.

Last spring our group wrote the KK Initiative, had it approved by Berkeley and Alameda County, and we began to collect signatures. We collected over 3,000 signatures, approximately 50% more than were necessary to qualify it for the ballot, in less than six weeks. Now it is on the ballot. At the very least, this will inform the citizens of Berkeley about BRT and start them thinking about where Berkeley is headed.

The main arguments against this initiative are that it will cost the city lots of money, and that it is anti-environmental. Neither is true.

If Measure KK passes, you will get a vote before any major project such as BRT is approved and dedicated traffic lanes are transferred to AC Transit or similar organizations. But the cost cited in the ballot argument against Measure KK is grossly inflated. Most of it represents analysis that Berkeley should do before handing over any public traffic lanes to AC Transit, whether or not Measure KK passes and requires a public vote.

As to the anti-environmental argument, according to data contained in AC Transit’s only environmental study shows almost no decrease in emissions, pollution, or travel time if BRT were implemented. The report makes no claims at all about greenhouse gases, and suggests a modest decrease in car trips.

AC Transit is already using the large, unpopular diesel buses along this route, and most of them have almost no passengers for most of the day. And these are hours of low traffic congestion. How will creating a bus only lane change this situation? Overall, just about any alternative transit investment would do much more for the planet—and we can only spend this money once.

I would also like you to compare the list of endorsers for Measure KK, pro and con. The No on Measure KK organization has the endorsement of a long list of politicians and special interest organizations. Yes on Measure KK is endorsed by Berkeley neighborhood and small business organizations, groups that represent Berkeley residents and business owners directly. This issue is not just about how buses are going to run on Berkeley streets. It is also about development. If BRT is built, it will trigger high density development around each station which would be beyond the control of Berkeley zoning regulations. (emphasis added)

So the trade-off for BRT on Telegraph and downtown appears to be that we spend between $235 and $400 million, confine all but bus traffic to one lane each direction, eliminate most of the parking along Telegraph, eliminate local bus service and other negative impacts—all to save two to three minutes on the trip between downtown Berkeley and downtown Oakland. And to give developers new opportunities to build high-density housing, which neighbors do not want, along the route, centered at each station. (emphasis added)

We find this an obviously bad deal. But we are not voting on BRT at this point, only for the right to vote on BRT-type projects.

That is why we worked so hard to put Measure KK on the ballot—to ensure that citizens can be heard on this important issue and others like it. Please vote Yes on Measure KK.

Mary Oram is treasurer of Advocates for Voter Approved Transit and a member of Berkeleyans for Better Transportation Options (BBTOP).


Editors, Daily Planet:

At the mayoral debate on Oct. 27, Tom Bates said “Measure KK would prevent the city council from even taking a look at BRT” or planning any other transit system involving dedicated lanes.

As Shirley Dean pointed out, this is completely untrue. Under the measure, the city would simply have to demonstrate to the voters that the benefits of any proposed plan would outweigh the detriments. This is exactly the type of discussion we have been trying to have with the city—and Bates, as usual, shows little interest in having a dialog with rank and file citizens. I suppose that’s why he never returned my phone calls a year ago when I first heard about BRT.

It’s only out of frustration with the city’s lack of dialog on BRT, that 3000 Berkeley voters signed the petition to get the initiative on the ballot. They felt there was no other way to get their voice heard. If it were not for the work of our coalition, BRT would have been rubber stamped by the City Council with a minimum of public input and little regard for the needs of Berkeley residents.

It’s clear that the Bates plan for Berkeley is to use BRT to create Transit Station-oriented high density development so that, to quote Bates, “the people who work in the city (i.e. at the Cal/LBL/British Petroleum facility) can live in the city.” This high density development will allows the city to alter the character of Berkeley forvever, generating real estate transfer fees, profits for developers and capturing Federal dollars. But the residents of Berkeley will find themselves living in an Emeryville-like canyon of high-rise condos. (emphasis added)

Ironically, under this plan for Berkeley, Bates and crew get points for being Green. Hence the Sierra Club’s and League of Women Voters pathetically misguided endorsement of Bates. But cutting down trees to put up concrete and stucco seems like a rather grey vision to me and the many people who chose to live in Berkeley for its unique character.

In short, a yes vote for Measure KK will force the city to meet with neighborhood groups and work with AC Transit to develop a bus improvement plan that meets the needs of Berkeley residents, and not just the University of California. Vote Yes on Meaure KK.

Bruce Kaplan
Berkeleyans for Better Transit
Co-proponent of Measure KK

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