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Why Matier & Ross Got It Wrong in Their Jab at East Bay BRT

Cross-posted from Vibrant Bay Area, a new collaborative blog from urbanist writers around the Bay Area.

AC Transit’s proposed East Bay Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line got a cheap kick in the gut yesterday from the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross. The duo took aim at the cost of BRT, a “jaw-dropping $18.7 million per mile,” but didn’t take a minute to compare the project to anything else in the Bay Area. BRT is a steal compared to other planned expansions, like BART to San Jose, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Chronicle.

Image: AC Transit via Oakland Local

Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is a bus route separated from traffic using transit-only lanes with specialized boarding platforms. Where BRT is fully implemented, it functions like BART. Fares are paid before boarding and bus entrances are level with the platform. When a BRT line runs along city streets, they turn lights green as they approach intersections. Each of these measures speeds the bus service, making it more reliable and faster than regular, mixed-traffic buses.

AC Transit’s BRT line will cost about $178 million to run 9.5 miles along International Avenue in Oakland and San Leandro. Though the improvements won’t be as robust as what you’d find even in poorer countries like Colombia, there is still plenty of work to do. Planning, stations, new buses, signal infrastructure, medians, and other infrastructure will dramatically improve service along the corridor. In 20 years, it’s expected to attract 40,000 riders per day, 24,500 of whom will be new. For the number of riders AC Transit will attract, this is a long way from “jaw-droppingly” expensive.

The Greenbrae Interchange Project in Marin will cost $143 million and add capacity for 825 more car trips per day, or $173,000 each. BART’s extension to San Jose will cost at least $7 billion and serve, at most, 78,000 trips per day, or $90,000 each (though Eric at Transbay Blog thinks this is absurdly optimistic). At only $7,265 per new trip, East Bay BRT is far and away a cheaper, more cost-effective undertaking than nearly anything else under way in the region.

It’s a double shame, then, that businesses along the corridor have sought to dumb-down the project and strip it of features and length that will attract more riders. They fear a loss of parking and worse traffic, but by reducing the scope of the line they’ve cut off a vital link to customers. It has been shown again and again – San Francisco on Polk Street and Columbus Avenue; Utrecht [PDF]; Melbourne [PDF]; New York; Toronto [PDF]; and elsewhere - that the best customer base a business can have are those who walk, bike, or take transit.

The Chronicle would better serve the community by trying to inform rather than smear. The facts show that AC Transit’s plan is a coup for cost-effective transportation and will bring transit to a corridor that desperately needs better service. One would hope that a journalist (or two) would be interested in such things.

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On the Ballot: A Key to Alameda County’s Sustainable Transportation Future

Alameda County could usher in a new era of progressive transportation projects if voters pass a proposed half-cent sales tax increase known as Measure B1 on November 6.

Measure B1 would generate a projected $7.8 billion over the next 30 years for projects selected using a “complete streets” approach aimed at improving the county’s streets, trails, and transit infrastructure to accommodate all modes of transportation. The measure would double the county’s existing half-cent transportation sales tax, with 48 percent of the revenue devoted to improving transit, 8 percent to bicycle and pedestrian projects, and 39 percent to roads and highways. If approved, it would represent an unprecedented commitment to non-motorized transportation.

“It’s sometimes incredible to believe that Alameda County is taking a national leadership role, but they are,” said Dave Campbell, program director for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition. “And we’re proud of them, and working closely with them to get this passed on November 6.”

County officials say they were motivated to put together the plan, in part, by the state’s requirement to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving those goals would require a major shift from driving to walking, biking, and transit in Alameda County.

The projects included in Measure B1′s funding plan could provide a dense network of trails, bicycle boulevards and bike lanes, as well as pedestrian safety improvements throughout Alameda County, helping to realize the vision laid out in its soon-to-be approved Bicycle and Pedestrian Plans. Off-street bicycle and pedestrian trails — including the Bay Trail, the Iron Horse Trail, and the East Bay Greenway — would connect BART stations in the eastern and southern parts of the county. Although 39 percent of the funds would be devoted to car-oriented infrastructure like roads and highways, some of those funds would also go toward creating bicycle and pedestrian highway crossings, bringing the potential total of bike/ped funding up to about 11 percent.

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Oakland City Council Gives Final Approval to East Bay BRT

Image: AC Transit via TransForm

The Oakland City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the 9.5-mile East Bay Bus Rapid Transit line that will run from downtown Oakland to San Leandro. The vote in Oakland follows a similar approval by San Leandro’s City Council on Monday.

The dual approvals mark a huge victory for advocacy groups and AC Transit, which first recommended BRT in 2001 as way to improve transit options on heavily traveled corridors. The East Bay BRT is expected to be completed in 2016 at a cost of between $152 million and $172 million, and will include seven miles of dedicated bus lanes in Oakland along International Boulevard with 33 stops, most located no more than one-third of a mile apart. Once finished, it will be one of the longest BRT routes in the country, and one of the few constructed in such a densely populated urban area.

“It’s tremendously significant,” said Joél Ramos, a community planner with TransForm. “It’s an indication of Oakland being a forward-thinking city… improving infrastructure to make travel, conducting business, accessing services, or even living along the corridor, more sustainable, more enjoyable, and more liveable.”

Before the vote, Tina Spencer, Oakland’s director of planning and service development, told the council: “The issue is slower transit, and it really creates an unsustainable condition. It’s a downward spiral. More congestion equals more delay, which contributes to unreliable service, fewer riders, which leads to less revenue, fewer riders and finally, service cuts.”

International Boulevard is one of the busiest and most important corridors in Oakland, with many homes and businesses, as well as near-by hospitals and medical centers, civic centers, shopping complexes and churches.

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Advocates Rebuff Merchant’s Absurd Argument Against East Bay BRT

Image: AC Transit

In an op-ed in the Oakland Tribune yesterday, local business owner Randy Reed laid down a whopping piece of misinformation: For businesses, he wrote, enhancing East Bay transportation options with Bus Rapid Transit will be no different than when construction removes all of the car parking on a street.

Reed, who led the charge in killing the Telegraph Avenue leg of the East Bay BRT route, got the piece published just as the project faces two critical hearings next week (see below for the schedule). Based on this new op-ed, Reed isn’t content to just squash transit improvements in his backyard — he also doesn’t want to let residents on the rest of the Downtown Oakland – San Leandro route reap the benefits.

Here’s what Reed calls the BRT “test run” that forms the backbone of his screed:

We have tested the effect of removing all street parking in our area, and it was devastating to our business. A test was run with city staff several years ago to see what happens with lane closures and parking removal on Telegraph from 43rd to 45th streets.

The problems were tracked: When the street was repaved; when ramps were installed on the corners; and when sidewalk repairs were performed.

Staff concluded that it would be disastrous.

Two local advocates offered up some fantastic rebuttals in the comments section. I’ll hand the mic over to Streetsblog’s own Oakland-based intern Robert Prinz, who is also the education coordinator for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition:

Maybe you would have a point if removing all street parking was actually part of the plan. Removing a few spots, sure, but the bulk of curbside parking spots will remain. The BRT planners I have talked to bent over backwards to keep as much parking as possible, to the detriment of other parts of the plan.

What is really going to happen is the reduced scope San Leandro-Oakland BRT is going to be built, it will be a huge boon for the communities along that corridor, and then the Telegraph merchants with a collective case of selective memory loss will start lining up to ask for an expensive extension into their business districts.

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Transbay Transit Center to Fill Downtown With People, Not Cars

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The new Transbay Transit Center is expected to transform San Francisco’s downtown core by focusing new development around a massive regional transit hub in eastern SoMa. Scheduled to open in 2017, it will link 11 transit systems and eventually CA High-Speed Rail. Some have called it the ”Grand Central of the West.”

Renderings via TransbayCenter.org

The SF Planning Commission last week approved an influx of high-density office and housing redevelopment, including the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper, in the neighborhood surrounding the new station at First and Mission Streets, known as the Transbay Center District. To ensure that new workers and residents come by transit, foot, and bike instead of clogging the streets with cars, the plan would make sweeping streetscape improvements and limit the amount of car parking in the area.

“This is going to be one of the best examples of transit-oriented development in the world,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). “We’re going to be putting in $4 billion in transit infrastructure and then putting our tallest buildings right on top of it. It’s going to be studied and emulated all over the world if we get this right.”

The hub, which replaces the old Transbay Terminal, would connect to transit systems in all nine Bay Area counties, including Muni, BART, AC Transit, SamTrans, and Golden Gate Transit. Caltrain would operate on an electrified system connecting directly to the station, thanks to a recently-approved plan to extend tracks from the 4th and King station. Caltrain would share those tracks with high-speed rail trains.

Streets within the plan area — bounded by Market Street to the north, Steuart to the east, Folsom to the south, and just short of Third to the west — would be transformed with improvements for walking, bicycling, and surface transit.

Major streets — Mission, Howard, New Montgomery, Second, First, and Fremont Streets — would get wider sidewalks, road diets, transit lanes, and boarding islands. The planning department is also looking at creating a transit-only plaza on Mission between First and Fremont.

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East Bay BRT EIR Approved, Final Agreements Set for June

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Image via TransForm

Bus rapid transit (BRT) between Oakland and San Leandro in the East Bay cleared a major hurdle this week after AC Transit unanimously approved the project’s environmental impact report. Agreements with the cities of Oakland and San Leandro must still be finalized in June before the project can officially break ground.

“This plan represents a big step in making bus service significantly better in the East Bay,” said Marta Lindsey, communications director for TransForm. “But it’s also a big step for the entire Bay Area, as it will showcase what’s possible: faster, more reliable, and more frequent buses – plus a better experience for riders all-around and at an incredible value.”

Marta noted that East Bay BRT has the highest cost-efficiency rating from the Federal Transit Administration of any public transportation project in the nation currently competing for federal funds.

The full Oakland-to-Berkeley corridor won’t get true BRT after merchants in Berkeley complained about losing car parking to dedicated bus lanes. But this section will bring substantial benefits on its own: 22 community organizations have signed a letter [PDF] cheering the estimated 39 percent improvement in travel times, 300+ jobs, and transit-oriented growth the project is expected to bring along the International Boulevard corridor.

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Mapping a Fully Transit-Connected Bay Area

Brian Stokle's map envisions how the Bay Area region could possibly be connected by future transit projects -- some planned, some only envisioned -- including high-speed rail, BART extensions, and BRT lines. Image via The Atlantic Cities

Imagine the freedom of being able to hop on a nearby train or bus to reach virtually any place in the Bay Area (and beyond) on an integrated network of reliable transit.

That’s the vision cartographer Brian Stokle sought to lay out in a map featured in the latest issue of SPUR‘s monthly magazine, The Urbanist. In a recent article in The Atlantic Cities, Urbanist editor Allison Arieff says that the map, along with another map of existing regional transit that Stokle created, “have generated a lot of conversation (and some controversy) — which is exactly what they were meant to do”:

The majority of the projects, routes, and modes shown in Stokle’s proposed “Future” map (or some might argue, “Utopian”) reflect current Bay Area planning. However in some cases, the mode or route has been changed. In other instances, some new routes have been suggested. For example, BART to Livermore and Dumbarton Rail are two projects that are not included in this map. Instead, access to Livermore from BART is provided by bus rapid transit, and the Dumbarton corridor is served by rapid bus service. New projects that are not currently part of planning, or are in their early phases include projects like the Oakland Emeryville streetcar down Broadway, Capitol Corridor crossing at Vallejo, and 101 Rapid in the Peninsula.

Some ideas are old, some more novel. In San Francisco, the controversial Central Subway (now under construction) is shown extending all the way to Lombard and Van Ness to meet the coming BRT line, which is also extended to connect the Transbay Terminal to Marin County via the Golden Gate Bridge (where a BART line was fought off in the 60′s).

What would it take to bring a comprehensive vision like this into reality, and which projects could be feasibly built? Regional planners are currently figuring that out as they develop the Bay Area’s 25-year Sustainable Communities Strategy and Regional Transportation Plan. Next month, staff from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transportation financing agency, will present a list of the transit projects they determine to be the most beneficial and cost-effective to build in the coming years. Stay tuned to Streetsblog for more on that.

In the meantime, check out Stokle’s map of the existing regional transit network — one of SPUR’s ideas for saving transit – after the break.

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Six Ideas for Saving Bay Area Transit

[Editor's note: This article is re-published with permission from the transit-themed March issue of The Urbanist, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association's (SPUR) monthly member magazine. The article, written by SPUR Regional Planning Director Egon Terplan, is based on a discussion paper developed by the SPUR Transportation Policy Board. Read the full paper at spur.org/tsp.]

Improving transit by changing financing, fares, speeds, metrics, territory and maps.

Every day, Bay Area residents and visitors take more than 1.4 million trips on one of 27 different public transit operators. But for more than a decade, the costs to operate these transit systems have been increasing far faster than any improvements in the service. Unless we make changes now, the system will not be sustainable in the future.

Regionwide, transit carries one in ten people to work. It costs more than $2.2 billion to run these 27 transit systems each year. More than $700 million comes from fares and $1.5 billion is a direct subsidy from a hodgepodge of sources (sales taxes, federal funds, state gas tax revenues). By looking out to 2035, these systems will face a combined $17 billion capital deficit and an $8 billion operating deficit.

In recent years, the costs of running these transit systems have increased far faster than inflation, even as ridership on some bus systems has declined. About 14,000 people work full time for the region’s public transit systems. Wages and fringe benefits account for more than three-quarters of the operating and maintenance costs of transit, and the cost of fringe benefits in particular is rising fast. At the same time, budget shortfalls, unpredictable revenues and service cuts are degrading the quality of public transportation. Transit systems face competition from an underpriced alternative — driving — and often operate in low-density and auto-oriented environments that are not conducive to growing ridership.

Unless there is some change to costs and revenues, with corresponding improvements in service, the viability of transit in the Bay Area is at risk. Recognizing this looming crisis, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional agency that funds transportation, launched the Transit Sustainability Project (TSP).

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Bay Area’s First BRT System Coming to the East Bay By 2016

Transit riders in the East Bay will get a boost in 2016 with the arrival of the region’s first Bus Rapid Transit corridor, connecting San Leandro and Oakland. The project recently reached a major milestone with the release of its final environmental impact report (EIR). AC Transit will begin fielding public feedback on the EIR next week, and construction could begin as soon as next year.

The project will speed up service on AC Transit Rapid Bus Routes 1 and 1R, primarily along International Boulevard from San Leandro BART Station to downtown Oakland. The BRT line is projected to increase transit speeds 39 percent, reduce automobile travel by 21,000 miles each day, lower operating costs, and spur transit-oriented growth along the roughly 14-mile corridor.

“BRT will bring a whole new level of efficiency, which will translate into quicker rides, more comfortable and more reliable rides that will attract more riders and dramatically improve this service that riders currently experience along the corridor,” said Joél Ramos, a community planner at the Oakland-based TransForm who also sits on the SFMTA Board of Directors. San Francisco is currently developing BRT routes on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, but the East Bay project is expected to open first.

East Bay BRT will be “the first significant amount of infrastructure investment in east Oakland for over 35 years,” said Ramos. The route currently sees over 20,000 riders per day, and although BART runs parallel to it, Ramos pointed out that BRT improvements will create a more attractive option for those who can’t easily walk to a BART station or only want to travel locally.

“The bus service actually serves people who live between BART stations,” he said.

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Tomorrow: East Bay Advocates Call for Fixing Alameda Transit First

A coalition of East Bay advocates is urging supporters to speak up tomorrow morning and tell the Alameda County Transportation Commission (ACTC) to take advantage of a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to repair and restore a failing system and provide a cost-effective, equitable, and sustainable transportation future.”

Measure B, Alameda County’s largest source of transportation funding, is set to go to voters for re-authorization next November, and advocates say it’s crucial that the proposal prioritize investments in fixing transit and improving walking and bicycling conditions.

“The ACTC is preparing to ask voters in November 2012 to double the county’s current half-cent transportation sales tax to one cent, make the tax permanent, and approve a 30-year Transportation Expenditure Plan (TEP),” states a press release from the Community Vision Coalition, comprised of members like the East Bay Bike Coalition (EBBC) and TransForm. “The TEP will determine the spending priorities for the first $7.8 billion generated by the new measure.”

Dave Campbell, the EBBC’s program director, says the measure as it’s currently being drafted puts expensive road and transit capital expansion projects ahead of the needs of the existing transit system, and a strong show of public support is needed tomorrow to convince the ACTC to invest the revenue more wisely.

“Our needs are to fix the potholes on the streets, get BART trains and AC Transit buses running on time, and make our streets safer for walking and bicycling,” said Campbell. “The ACTC has done public surveys, polling, and outreach, and consistently they’ve been told, ‘Fix the system first.’”

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