Now that one of the primary funders of Oakland’s Free Broadway Shuttle has decided to cut its contribution to the program by half, those who work with the shuttle say they’re optimistic it will continue, but they’ll need to make up the funding deficit to keep the free rides coming.
The lime green “Free B” busses make a loop through Oakland’s commercial center—from Grand Avenue down through Jack London Square. They’re intended to encourage people to come downtown by providing a convenient way to get around.
The program launched in 2010 as a project of the former Community and Economic Development Agency. It was funded by a $500,000 grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), a pollution control agency, with additional grants from public and private sponsors, like the business district associations in the area.
The air quality management district has provided yearly grant funding since then, but the agency first considered denying the city’s 2013 application, then ultimately decided to provide only half the amount requested. About one-third of the program’s budget comes from the district; the other two-thirds come from other public and private sources. AC Transit receives about $612,000 to provide the service, says Clarence Johnson, AC Transit media affairs manager.
According to Damian Breen, grant manager for the air quality management district, the city asked for $345,605 this year; they’re getting $177,302. He says his organization will work with the city to find other sources of funding for the shuttle. “We’re hopeful that that combination will allow the project to continue,” he says.
The air quality district based its recommendation for denial on the shuttle’s route, saying it duplicates other AC Transit bus routes, and therefore doesn’t meet the criteria of the Transportation Fund for Clean Air grant program. Breen says specific legislation requires the program to fund “feeder” busses—those that serve riders getting off other public transit—not transportation busses. But the distinction can be hard to make, he says. “It’s unfortunate that the Oakland shuttle has gotten caught up in this,” he says. “The shuttle itself is fantastic. Unfortunately, sometimes great projects don’t meet criteria.”
After BAAQMD announced that support might be cut, Oakland officials asked for a continuance and were able to show that a large number of shuttle riders are transferring from BART or another form of public transit. They were also able to demonstrate that the Free B bus path differs from other AC Transit lines—at least in some places.
“The new data that we’ve looked at has convinced us that at least a portion of this route meets the feeder bus definition,” Breen says. “Which is why we’re providing half the funding.”
Despite the deficit, shuttle program manager Zach Seal is optimistic. “We are confident we will be able to identify adequate funds to keep the shuttle running without any interruption or change in service,” he wrote in an email.
That’s good news for riders like Oakland resident Richard Ramirez, who uses the bus to get to the YMCA after work and says the free ride is good for him and his city. “The shuttle is an invitation for people to come out and see what’s happening,” he says. Plus, “It’s one heck of a convenience.”
Correction: This story originally stated that the initial grant from BAAQMD was $1 million. The grant was $500,000.