East Bay, Starved for Transit Funds, Considers Postponing BRT Project

East Bay BRT Route Map» Line connecting Berkeley, Oakland, and Bayfair had been planned for 2012; Oakland Airport Connector project, meanwhile, still appears to be moving forward.

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

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Andy K

    It is time to stop the OAC. One should note that it would cost 2 people going from the BART to the Airport about the same to take a cab as the connector. Also, the connector will not have any intermediate stops as was originally promised. It will require a fairly long walk to the terminal as well.

    The OAC is not rapid – 27 mph.

  • Winston

    The OAC is just about the worst conceived transportation project in Bay Area history. It would take a profitable bus service and replace it with a slower monorail that will also feature higher operating costs and spend billions doing it. It would be far easier and just as effective to add a couple of queue jump lanes along the existing bus service’s route which would benefit both the airport bus service and the AC transit buses that serve the airport.

  • Boondogglin'

    I don’t know why EB congressional reps don’t stand up against this. These are dollars that could be going to a host of other transport projects around Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro that would provide much better ROI. One has only to look at how badly BART missed the mark with the SFO connection that they barely even run anymore to see where this project is going. What a travesty! The impact on congestion is negligeable b/c of the low volumes and the fact that peak airport hours don’t actually coincide that closely with peak freeway hours. BART could use this money for a host of station improvements in DTO, or it could go to San Pablo BRT, or to a BRT line out to East Oakland, or to accelerate the much need Telegraph BRT. For the total bill on the OAC, you could probably build most of a light rail line from OAK up 73rd to the mall. MTC needs to get a grip.

  • Winston

    Just to add more to the criticism of the OAC, here’s a link to a site that proposes a far more sensible alternative to the OAC supported by most bay area transit activists.

    http://oaklandairportconnector.com/rapid-bart-alternative/

  • Mike

    leaving aside OAC for the moment, AC would not be facing a deficit of this magnitude if it were not for the district’s soaring operating cost rates. Years of poor management by Fernandez and the Board (i.e., failure to play the appropriate role of “management” in labor negotiations) have left AC with an astronomically high cost structure and pathetically poor productivity. Note that these “state funds” that AC is not receiving this year are only a very small slice of the operating subsidy, and they are so volatile from year to year that no sane manager would ever build a budget that relied upon them.

  • That can’t possibly be the least expensive elevated solution they could find. Aerobus (don’t know if they are still in business) lists Monorail as $75m-$100m a mile, and this seems to be monorail. The Aerobus technology was listed as $15m-$30m/mile, which would leave enough for two air terminal connections, an intermediate station or two, Coliseum BART and Coliseum Amtrak.

    The major perceived disadvantage of Aerobus is the 30mph speed (hence the “bus” even if its technically elevated light rail), but the OAC is no faster than that.

  • david vartanoff

    First, the OAC is of course a total misdesign and should not be built. Second, while I as a rider would like wholesale replacement of Board and misManagement, the service cuts are not acceptable. Delaying the BRT project is a small price to pay for retaining the already skeletal service AC provides. I should note that several speakers at the BOD mtg. Friday lamented that BRT was the only marquee transit project in the East Bay and should be supported because the East Bay deserved something. In my view this is not a valid reason to spend millions on a badly thought out bus line. As a regular rider of the 1/1R, I don’t need TVMs, “stations,” or dedicated lanes so much as assurance the buses will run period. Last night, returning from the AC BOD mtg. the trip was very fast after a long wait–making the trip 3 minutes faster but not more frequent is pointless.

  • political_incorrectness

    The OAC just need to be axed. 522 million bucks for three miles is a waste of money. I’d get someone at the national level to cut the $70 million dollar earmark from the stimulus package. That could be better used for AC’s BRT, producing a few long term jobs, short term construction jobs, and benefiting more of the public!

  • Axed

    There’s political movement towards axing this project. Oakland city council has requested that MTC look at getting grant money spent elsewhere. Another meeting is coming October 7th that could be key. I agree with Mike that AC Transit could do a lot to cut their operating costs. I’m not familiar with the board structure, but they need to more accountable and do their jobs. TDA audits and withholdings are at least a worthwhile sanity check.

  • Matt Fisher

    Okay, I’m not a big fan of BRT, but in this case, BRT is just fine. And since the East Bay is literally broke, BRT is the best they can do. It can attract a lot, like in Ottawa or Curitiba or Bogota. And someday, it will be rail. I disagree that BRT is “just like rail, but cheaper”. However, dedicated lanes are necessary, and rail is expensive. :(

  • Matt Fisher

    Once again, to clarify, I am not advocating BRT as a substitute. But in the case of Oakland, LRT is just too expensive. ;( BRT is a legitimate solution there. There is no reason to go into “mode wars”. BRT is “better than nothing”. Therefore, I support AC Transit’s BRT plan.

  • Matt Fisher

    I want to make clear something: BRT in any form, including what AC Transit proposes, is more cost effective than the silly OAC project. Use the money that will be spent on something not really needed for BRT. This is one of the few cases where BRT can be a better mode than rail.

  • It is time to stop the OAC. One should note that it would cost 2 people going from the BART to the Airport about the same to take a cab as the connector. Also, the connector will not have any intermediate stops as was originally promised. It will require a fairly long walk to the terminal as well.

    • Dexter Wong

      You may be right, but as of this point, BART has finished it and is testing its operation, even showing it off to KTVU-TV. KTVU attached two Go-Pro cameras to the train to show what a ride would be like (since passenger operation has not been approved at this point). It would take a massive scandal to to halt the project at this point.

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