AC Transit hopes to speed up and improve service on Line 51. Photo: Paul Sullivan/Flickr
AC Transit hopes to speed up and improve service on Line 51 with a series of signal improvements and other changes. Photo: Paul Sullivan/Flickr

Citing budgetary and scheduling constraints, along with a desire to listen to community concerns, AC Transit has removed most of the “controversial” items from its proposal to improve service on the Line 51 bus route in Berkeley.

“I think it’s safe to say it contains a lot less potentially controversial items than previously,” AC Transit representative Robert del Rosario told Berkeley’s Transportation Commission on Thursday night.

The panel voted to recommend the current list of modifications to the Berkeley City Council, which is expected to consider the item in April. Four members of the commission were absent, with commissioners Eric McCaughrin, Darby Watson, Terry Roberts, Ghanya Thomas and Mark Humbert voting unanimously to recommend that council approve the plan.

Project elements approved Thursday night included a variety of bus stops slated to be lengthened, and the creation of numerous right-turn pockets along the route. Bus bulbs are planned on Durant Avenue at Dana Street and Telegraph Avenue. And four bus stops on Durant will be relocated across their current intersections. (The full list appears here beginning on p. 6.)

The commission also agreed to send a letter to council members expressing reticence about ideas still on the list related to four existing bus stops on University Avenue.

When AC Transit initially introduced the concept to the public last summer, many community members fought back. Complaints ran the gamut from concerns about parking losses and a new traffic signal in the Elmwood to general feedback that the so-called improvements would have negative impacts on neighbors and merchants, while failing to speed up service much. Other community members dinged AC Transit for a lack of public outreach and inadequate transparency about its plans.

AC Transit has met with the public in a variety of contexts since then, and scaled back its initial idea, which was based on a 2008 study about how to improve service on the bus line, one of the busiest in the East Bay.

Since the Traffic Commission’s first public meeting on the project in October, AC Transit has made major alterations to its plans. Community members who attended Thursday night’s meeting, many of whom were affiliated with the University Avenue Association, thanked the agency for hearing their concerns and making those revisions.

Community members did express concerns about proposals related to four bus stops on University Avenue: the removal of stops at Bonar Street and McGee Avenue, and the relocation of stops at Grant and Sacramento streets. Some brought up how seniors near one of the stops would have a harder time reaching its new location, and others talked about negative impacts for businesses adjacent to the potential relocations. The commission agreed to outline those concerns in a letter to council.

In November, the commission approved a list of signal upgrades and other adjustments along the Line 51 route in Berkeley that were largely seen as non-controversial. AC Transit and the city agreed to push the more contentious elements into a second phase, to be considered later.

Since then, AC Transit dropped nearly all of the elements from its project that had raised alarms, from taking away already limited parking in the Elmwood and adding a new traffic signal at College Avenue and Russell Street, to using parking lanes to create peak-hour travel lanes for buses on University Avenue.

Del Rosario told the commission Thursday night that the agency knew from the beginning its list was too long, and would need to be culled to fit within the available budget.

“Right now, we’re right at budget throughout the entire corridor,” he said.

According to the staff report prepared for the April 1 City Council meeting, AC Transit received $10.5 million in federal funds for capital improvements in Berkeley, Oakland and Alameda: “Depending on the final elements approved, Berkeley could benefit from improvements valued at up to $4.4 million.”

AC Transit reps said in October that the changes proposed initially would shave 7-8 minutes in each direction off the route in Berkeley, increase reliability, improve air quality, enhance ADA access and improve the “overall progression of traffic.”

Del Rosario said he did not have an estimate Thursday night for how timing along the route might be affected under the current plan.

According to the staff report, the proposed improvements would make service more reliable, and “reduce both the number of stop-start movements at bus stops and red lights, and idling while trying to pull back out into the travel lane, resulting in a slight decrease in emissions from transit vehicles and personal automobiles. In addition, improvements in efficiency and reliability of the bus line should encourage more people to use public transportation instead of driving. This mode shift would result in overall decreases in pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.”

City staff said Thursday night that decisions related to the bus stops would be made at the staff level by a city traffic engineer, rather than by members of the council.

The Berkeley City Council is scheduled to vote to approve permits related to the Line 51 project as part of its April 1 agenda.

See the current list of project elements beginning on p. 6 of the April 1 staff report.

Traffic signal upgrades planned on Line 51 route (11.26.13)
AC Transit’s Line 51 plans get second review Thursday (11.20.13)
Merchants ask AC Transit to revise Line 51 plans (10.21.13)
Parking losses, lane changes possible in Line 51 overhaul (08.26.13)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...