AC Transit, which provides service in the California East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, announced earlier this month that it would have to cut service by 15% to make up for budget shortfalls. The agency has suffered from declining tax revenue and a complete cutoff from state funds that it had relied upon in previous years. The agency, which is centered in Oakland, is one of the largest transit providers in the country, with buses carrying 240,000 people a day.
In order to avoid cutting service, General Manager Rick Fernandez has proposed using $80 million in funds now designated for a bus rapid transit line and divert it to normal bus service. The BRT project would connect downtown Berkeley with Bayfair, via downtown Oakland, roughly paralleling the existing BART route but providing more stops; it would provide light rail-quality connections to an area whose buses are notoriously overcrowded. AC Transit’s board of directors will meet on the issue later today.
For the sake of today’s large number of bus users, delaying the implementation of the BRT seems like an acceptable trade-off. Should people suffer through dramatically worse transit service now for the benefit of improvements they’ll get in four years? On the other hand, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to delay other, less useful projects in the Bay Area instead?
Take, for instance, the Oakland Airport Connector, which has been earmarked $70 million in U.S. government stimulus funds because the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission considers it a top priority. The Connector would connect passengers between the existing BART Oakland Coliseum stop and the airport 3.2 miles away, at a cost of $530 million — again, by 2012. Unlike the BRT, or, of course, bus service AC Transit already offers, the Connector would do very little to improve the daily lives of the vast majority of residents in the region.
In the plan, the existing $3 AirBart bus service that runs on Hegenberger Road would be replaced by a more reliable $6 rapid train. The installation of much cheaper bus-only lanes for AirBart has been rejected outright by a Board that thinks that the city’s airport passengers deserve a silver-plated shuttle even as the principally lower class passengers of AC Transit continue to be, well, screwed. The MTC doesn’t have its priorities right, and it’s no surprise that the Oakland City Council is considering asking the MTC to transfer the funds to be used for the project to other, more essential programs.
The State of California clearly has a role to play here — despite the recession, it should raise taxes and restore the essential transit funding localities rely upon to provide good service to their communities. But the MTC isn’t making a good name for itself when it chooses to willingly ignore the more pressing needs of its current transit users and instead invest in expensive, prestige projects in the interest of attracting well-off “choice” riders.
Image above: East Bay BRT Route Map, from AC Transit