Alan Tobey, a citizen of Berkeley since 1970, has been closely following the plans for Bus Rapid Transit in Berkeley. He reports on the latest developments:

FMG Architects

In 2001, the Berkeley City Council unanimously approved its choice for an AC Transit “major improvement” project: Bus Rapid Transit on Telegraph Avenue and on into Downtown. Only nine years later, the Council will soon choose the details of what may actually be built.

Bus Rapid Transit is said to improve service by increasing reliability, frequency and speed, and it supports Berkeley’s current “transit first” policy; but its claim of precedence over some traditional private auto convenience has created a vigorous opposition.

On March 23 the Council will be “presented” with “build” choices recommended by the Transportation and Planning Commissions for BRT’s Locally Preferred Alternatives (LPA), to be used by AC Transit in producing the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. On April 20 the final LPA choices will be approved.  Once this FEIS is certified late this summer, Berkeley (and Oakland and San Leandro, also part of the same project) will decide on the project itself.

Though you’d never know it from the comments of BRT opponents at recent public meetings, this LPA step is not about whether to approve the final construction of a project. It only controls what will be studied in the FEIS: what negative impacts the project might create in the context of the benefits, how those negative impacts could be mitigated (eliminated or reduced), and what variants are viable. The FEIS will also analyze a “no build” alternative and a near-no-build scenario call Rapid Bus Plus.

Up to now only “impacts” were described by AC Transit in the draft FEIS, which have been used by BRT opponents as ammunition. The inclusion of potential mitigations and alternatives, along with a now-required consideration of greenhouse gas emissions related to the project, should provide a better basis for a more balanced community discussion this fall.

Although there are many relevant details that still may change, the shape of the overall build-LPA package is starting to be visible. There is now one set of “commissions” recommendations plus a new set of comments from staff that favor some different alternatives on parts of the route.  There are four segments that will each get separate consideration. Headline items and alternatives for each are as follows:

Oakland border to Dwight Way. The only build scenario to be studied will be the provision of exclusive center-running bus lanes in both directions on Telegraph, connecting with a presumed identical configuration in Oakland.

Dwight Way to Bancroft. Both the Planning Commission and the Transportation Commission voted to recommend no exclusive bus lanes on this segment, but instead want to change the street to two-way, with mixed BRT and auto traffic in both directions. City transportation staff have written a “rationale” for leaving current Telegraph unchanged here, with southbound BRT buses running on Dana Street from Bancroft in a bus-only lane.

Telegraph to Downtown. Both commissions and the city staff recommend the conversion of Bancroft and possibly Durant to two-way traffic, with BRT and auto traffic running in both directions on Bancroft. Lane configurations, changed traffic flow and concerns over how and where a long BRT bus can make the needed right turn to go southbound would be left for the study.

Shattuck Avenue in Downtown. Both commissions recommend a “build” alternative for study here (favoring prominent center-street stations — see sketch, above right) even though parallel studies as part of deciding the Downtown Area Plan and as part of the SOSIP (Streets and Open Space Improvement Plan) process are still ongoing.The staff report provides its brief “rationale” for considering only small “raised platform stations” at right-side curb stops.

Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting didn’t resolve the differences, but only become entangled in possible differences between federal and state environmental law about the degree to which “alternatives” such as both the commission and staff scenarios could be included in the FEIR. Staff and some commissioners will try to resolve these technicalities before the Council meeting.

Even those council members currently skeptical of BRT as a project seem to be conceding that a thorough build-option study, guided by the city’s LPA choices, is essential at this point. The release of the ensuing FEIS, with hundreds of pages of juicy detail for proponents and opponents to use as ammunition, will significantly define the political end-game expected for the late fall.

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