An AC Transit bus in Berkeley. AC Transit suspended Line 80 in August due to low ridership. A pilot program will re-route Line 79 onto a section of Ashby Avenue previously served by Line 80 but will fail to restore Line 80’s service through West Berkeley along Sixth Street. Credit: Zac Farber

AC Transit is planning to direct more buses to Ashby Avenue, replacing the Line 80 route put on hold last August due to low ridership and revenue losses during the pandemic. But the short-term solution, which will take nine months to implement, falls short of restoring service along Sixth Street in West Berkeley, which transit advocates say will hurt residents in some of the city’s lowest-income, most diverse neighborhoods.

AC Transit leaders, however, say hard choices are necessary as the cash-strapped transit agency seeks to shore up its finances. Grappling with rising expenses and uncertain revenues, AC Transit is looking to create a new post-pandemic bus system by August 2022 that could extend some service cuts and concentrate buses on the routes most used by Alameda County residents.

In the meantime, the agency has been gathering feedback from constituents through community forums, including one focused on reactions to recent cuts.

In response to backlash from transit advocates, riders and city leaders after Line 80 was shut down, the AC Transit board unanimously approved a pilot last Wednesday that will re-route the southern portion of Line 79 – which currently runs from Albany to the Rockridge BART station – to instead turn from Claremont onto Ashby and then proceed to Emeryville. This would replace Line 80 – which traveled along Ashby Avenue, Sixth Street and Pierce Street – before it was suspended in August.

Line 80 traveled along Ashby Avenue, Sixth Street and Pierce Street before it was suspended in August. Credit: East Bay Transit Riders Union
The proposed route of Line 79 is shown in red. The discontinued segment of the line is shown in dotted blue. Credit: AC Transit

Line 72, which runs five blocks east of Sixth Street along San Pablo Avenue, is currently the only north-south route through West Berkeley.

The new route is expected to attract more riders because it will connect Ashby to downtown and UC Berkeley, as well as to shopping and employment centers in Emeryville, according to staff.

In April, the Berkeley City Council sent a letter to the transit agency asking it to reinstate Line 80 to provide vital service to city riders, while also helping to meet city goals related to climate change and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“As a connecting line between the Ashby BART station, Alta Bates Medical Center, the South Berkeley Senior Center, and the Berkeley Pines Care Center, the loss of the 80 line would permanently deprive many Berkeley seniors of a method of transportation that they have relied on in the past,” the letter said. “Those left with no transportation alternatives will likely turn to car travel, be it with personal automobiles or through ride-hailing mobile apps, which will only increase local fossil fuel emissions and air pollution while decreasing street safety.”

Although Berkeley transit advocates support the restoration of bus service on Ashby, they are pushing to bring back service to the Sixth Street portion of Line 80 – which will not be restored in the pilot – to serve low-income city residents, especially seniors. Sixth Street, said Darrell Owens, a Berkeley transit activist who co-founded the East Bay Transit Riders Union, is “important because this is one of our lowest-income communities in the entire city.”

Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin told Berkeleyside he is also concerned about the loss of service on Sixth Street, which he said is considered a priority in the city’s Vision Zero plan because it is very congested and has been flagged as a “high-injury corridor” with numerous accidents. That plan seeks to reduce traffic-related accidents resulting in serious injuries or deaths to zero by 2028, especially in low-income areas such as this section of West Berkeley, where cyclists often travel alongside cars in the bike lane.

The bus pilot is expected to begin next March, said Michael Eshelman, a service planning manager for AC Transit. Staff will be watching to see if ridership exceeds 10 to 12 passengers per hour, which was the level on the Ashby portion of Route 80 before the pandemic, he added. AC Transit must hold a public hearing to decide whether or not to keep the service by March 2023.

Eshelman said the agency could not afford to fully reinstate Line 80 because the rest of the route did not have as many riders and it needs to devote more buses to lines where some passengers are now being passed up due to heavier demand, such as San Pablo and Telegraph avenues. The need for 6 feet of social distancing on buses during the pandemic has limited their capacity, but AC Transit expects to reduce that to 3 feet this month, which will double the capacity of its buses, Director Chris Peeples said.

Budget troubles

Budget constraints are weighing heavily on the minds of AC Transit leaders as they try to reimagine the bus network to add new services that may be needed by August 2022 and remove routes that are not heavily used. Short-term, they are counting on federal funds from the American Rescue Plan to help them stay afloat, despite the loss of fare revenues during the pandemic.

In the near future, AC Transit is working to complete several “quick build” projects including improved bus lanes and bus “bulbs” at stops on Durant Avenue in Berkeley, which the city is helping to fund. AC Transit is also desperately trying to hire more than 80 new bus drivers to fill vacancies as it adds back bus routes.

But long term, the agency is predicting deficits it may struggle to overcome, while forging ahead with plans to convert its fleet to zero-emission buses in the next four years. In addition, it is exploring Rapid Transit Bus lines along major arteries such as San Pablo and Telegraph, which could include dedicated bus lanes or signals that turn green when buses approach.

AC Transit service is down to about 75% of its pre-pandemic level, including the loss of Transbay lines to San Francisco. It anticipates restoring service to about 85% by December, mainly by adding back school routes in the fall.

Federal funding from the CARES Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act has helped buses stay running during the pandemic. AC Transit is reluctant to quickly ramp up service to a level it’s not sure it will have the revenue to sustain. The district projects that it may not be able to restore service to 100% of what it offered pre-pandemic without new sources of revenue after the federal funds dry up.

As the board prepares to approve its 2021-22 budget this month, it has prepared two different scenarios. One shows it hopes to maintain at least 85% service through 2024-25 with federal funding from the American Rescue Plan. But it won’t know how much it will get from the federal government until July. A more “aspirational” budget scenario shows that AC Transit could return to full pre-pandemic service levels by 2022-23 if it receives $163 million in federal funding.

The agency doesn’t expect its farebox revenues to return to 100% of pre-pandemic levels until 2024-25. Several members of the public expressed frustration about these projections, saying that the public won’t resume bus riding if service continues to be insufficient and unreliable.

District directors noted that farebox revenues are not enough to support the service and said additional revenue sources would be needed to significantly expand. The board recently agreed to postpone a planned fare increase of 25 cents per ride for one year, which would have brought $2.3 million in increased revenues. However, the district expects to receive more than that amount from the federal government, so the decision is not expected to significantly impact next year’s budget or service.

Public hearings are planned next spring to help determine the bus route changes the board will vote on in August 2022.

Freelancer Theresa Harrington has worked as a reporter since 2000, including education coverage at EdSource and city and education beat coverage at Bay Area News Group. She has been recognized with multiple...