Nearly a year after the City Council endorsed a plan to transform the north end of Telegraph Avenue into a plaza-like street with a dedicated bus lane, that vision for some of Berkeley’s most iconic blocks is stalled because officials don’t have a way to pay for it.
The redesign of Telegraph between Dwight Way and the UC Berkeley campus was approved in February as part of a broader effort to repave and redesign four streets in the Southside neighborhood. The process sparked a wave of activism from UC Berkeley students who want the city to go further and ban private cars from the avenue’s busiest blocks.
But the proposal for Telegraph exceeded Berkeley’s budget for the project, and construction costs have soared over the past year. As a result, city officials have now spun off the Telegraph plans from the rest of the Southside repaving project, and they’re having to scramble for more funding just to complete the work on the other three streets — Bancroft Way, Dana Street and Fulton Street — that is supposed to start next year.
Any redesign of Telegraph Avenue is likely years away from becoming a reality.
“I understand … why we had to remove it from the rest of the project — but, yeah, it is frustrating,” said Rebecca Mirvish, president of the student group Telegraph for People, which attracted national attention to its push for a car-free avenue. Even as the group’s vision slips further into the future, though, Mirvish said she remains “very confident that it will happen eventually.”
The four-street repaving project, called Southside Complete Streets, began with $8.3 million in state and county funding for work to improve bike and pedestrian safety in the dense campus-adjacent neighborhood. Plans approved by the City Council called for building new and expanded lanes for bikes and buses, plus reworked intersections along Dana, Fulton and Bancroft.
The proposal for four blocks at the north end of Telegraph Avenue was “much bolder” than the project initially envisioned, said Councilmember Rigel Robinson, who represents the area. It called for raising the road level so that it was even with the sidewalk, which would create a plaza design that other cities have adopted for popular streets, while also reserving one of Telegraph’s two traffic lanes for buses.
The Telegraph Business Improvement District opposed the transit lane plan and several prominent merchants spoke out against it — much as they had more than a decade earlier, when resistance from business owners led Berkeley to block plans for a bus rapid transit line running the length of the avenue, from the Cal campus to Downtown Oakland.
This time, though, the City Council wasn’t swayed by the opposition. Councilmembers voted to support the new plan for a bus lane and street plaza, and also launch a process to consider Telegraph for People’s proposal to kick private cars off the avenue altogether.
“That’s incredibly exciting,” said Robinson, who has for years championed the idea of making Telegraph a car-free street. “But it’s also a much bigger project.”
Rough estimates put the cost of the Telegraph plaza at $10 million, Robinson said.
Meanwhile, the work on Bancroft, Dana and Fulton has risen to $17.3 million, more than double the project’s initial budget, an increase Robinson attributed to a broader trend of rising costs for infrastructure projects and design changes such as the addition of a new stoplight on Bancroft. The City Council agreed to put $1 million of city funding toward that project as part of budget revisions earlier this month, but Robinson said Berkeley public works staff are still seeking money from other sources to close a $7.9 million funding gap.
As for the Telegraph Avenue changes, he said, “We are effectively at square one.”
It’s not yet clear how Berkeley might pay for the changes on Telegraph. The city is seeking state funding for the project, though gloomy budget forecasts in Sacramento could make it harder to secure. Robinson also suggested it could be funded by the city’s settlement agreement with UC Berkeley, or that an effort to rewrite zoning rules to allow denser development in Southside could include provisions requiring builders to put money toward projects that improve public spaces in the neighborhood.
Berkeley could make some changes to Telegraph while it awaits funding for the full redesign. Robinson said city officials are looking into “quick build” options for the avenue, such as creating a painted bus lane, like the one on Bancroft Way, which wouldn’t require rebuilding the roadway.
A city spokesperson declined to answer questions from Berkeleyside about the cost increases or what near-term changes are being considered for the avenue. Berkeley’s Transportation Division has been struggling with vacancies, according to city officials, who recently cited the planned work on Telegraph as a project that lacks both the money and staff it needs to move forward.
Berkeley has also started public outreach for a separate project to redesign the portion of Telegraph from Dwight Way to the Oakland border, which could also include a bus-only lane — though that effort similarly does not have funding for its engineering or construction.
Setback for car-free Telegraph supporters?
The delay means Telegraph For People now faces the challenge of keeping students engaged in activism for a project that likely won’t become a reality until their time at UC Berkeley is finished. Both of the group’s founders have graduated, as has Mirvish, though she will continue to lead it through the rest of the school year.
Mirvish said Telegraph For People’s strategy has expanded its activism beyond a single project to broader local debates over street safety and housing — she and other members have spoken at meetings about changes to zoning regulations and the proposal to build bike lanes along Hopkins Street in North Berkeley.
“We kind of widened our scope,” Mirvish said. “We have the energy to work on other things.”
On the other side of the debate, Telegraph’s merchants remain concerned about the planned changes, said Alex Knox, the business improvement district’s executive director. For now, they’re hoping the city will make the avenue more of a priority for new sidewalks, improved lighting and other pedestrian changes.
“We care a lot about improving the streetscape, and hopefully can continue to do that even without this project moving forward right now,” Knox said.
As for the vision of a car-free Telegraph, he said that without more specifics — such as which blocks might be closed to cars, or how logistical issues like loading would work for businesses — the group can’t take a position on the concept.
While the project has suffered a setback, Robinson said he thinks the City Council’s unanimous support for the Telegraph Avenue redesign last winter shows the tide has turned in favor of the car-free vision he hopes to see one day.
“Pedestrianizing Telegraph Avenue is not a question of ‘if’ anymore, it’s a question of ‘when,'” Robinson said. “It may take years to cobble together the resources to build this project — but the political will is there, and we will charge onward.”