It was with a kind of exhausted, cautious relief that Beverly Greene addressed a small crowd in downtown Oakland Wednesday night about the East Bay BRT—Alameda-Contra Costa County Transit’s proposed “Bus Rapid Transit” line, which is scheduled to run from Downtown Oakland to San Leandro when it opens in 2016. For Greene, who is AC Transit’s Assistant General Manager of External Affairs and Communications, the relief comes from the fact that after nearly 13 years in development, the project’s finish line is finally in sight.
“It started as an idea,” said Greene. “Next it was a study.” Now, with construction finally scheduled to start in 2014, the idea is nearing reality. The East Bay Rapid Bus Transit project, or “BRT,” consists of a planned bus line with its own new fleet of buses, new stations, and a dedicated traffic lane running 9.5 miles between the Uptown Transit Center on 20th Street near Telegraph in downtown Oakland and the San Leandro Bart station, following International Boulevard most of the way (see map in the sidebar for details).
The project’s price tag sits at about $174 million, with more than 90 percent of the funds already raised through federal and state grants, as well as internal AC Transit allocation (see financial breakdown graph).
The 9.5-mile line will look a bit different from most other bus routes, with the 34 stations along the way looking “a lot more like rail stations than bus stations,” Greene said. In the slides she talked through on Wednesday, Greene showed preliminary station concepts—plans that showed off stations built in center medians on the road, with waiting areas made up of landscaping elements, canopies and sitting areas that were much more expansive than traditional bench-in-a-box bus stops.
Taking a queue from rail travel to speed up the boarding process, Greene said, BRT tickets will be purchased from machines at the station, rather than from the bus driver. Greene also showed the assembled crowd computer-generated renditions of the changes planned along International Boulevard, complete with computer-generated happy commuters, setting the scene for how the bus line may look come 2016.
The new buses used by BRT are designed to “dock” with the raised stations, Greene told her audience Wednesday, making them easily accessible by wheelchair. Buses with multiple doors will pull up flush with the waiting area, mimicking the arrival position of a train, and providing for faster boarding than traditional bus stops. The fleet, which will run on clear diesel/electric hybrid engines, is expected to reduce the traffic corridor’s daily carbon emissions by over 4,000 pounds, according to AC Transit’s BRT Environmental Impact Report, by replacing the current buses and bringing about 2,000 fewer daily auto trips in the corridor.
The BRT will travel in its own, private lane of traffic along its entire route. This lane will be set apart from regular traffic with a solid white line on the road, and is intended for use only by BRT buses and emergency vehicles—making traffic something the bus will never have to deal with. The creation of this dedicated lane, along with the building of stations and the expansion of bike lanes down International Boulevard, account for the construction side of the project, Greene said.
AC Transit officials see the BRT line as much more affordable, at $1.5 million per mile in construction, than building a rail line. The construction of a light rail line normally costs $70 million per mile, and a heavy rail line like BART can cost up to $200 million per mile. According to Greene, AC Transit estimates that the $174 million to be spent in the East Bay will create 300 construction jobs, and 1,400 total jobs including line construction and ongoing operation.
The majority of the project’s funding has already been secured, with the remainder coming from a combination of AC Transit and county funds. Greene says AC Transit expects the money to be fully raised long before construction begins in 2014, but the exact source of the funding will depend in part on whether the county passes Measure B, a plan that would dedicate $7.8 billion in tax revenue over the next 30 years to Bay Area transportation.
The project finally surfaced from a long approval process about three months ago, according to principal architect Ron Finger. During this process, AC Transit had to negotiate separately with six cities, and make sure to meet all municipal policies, before the project could get past the planning stages. Finger and Greene have been leading community outreach meetings in the East Bay for the past week, and have been encouraged by the local communities’ positive reaction to the BRT, a standalone project separate from any other bus route changes throughout the East Bay.
“It’s an exciting project,” Greene said. “People are interested in it.”
Joël Ramos, a community planner from TransForm, a local nonprofit that works to expand public transit and walking routes in the Bay Area, has been helping AC Transit spread word of the project and encourage community support by maintaining a social media outpost at Friends of East Bay BRT on Facebook. “Right now there are 20,000 people a day taking this route,” Ramos said Wednesday.
Ramos’ figure, which matches AC Transit’s, is part of his argument as to why BRT is necessary—to provide a better option for all these commuters, he says, and to cater to the rising population of the East Bay, which according to the Association of Bay Area Governments is expected to increase more than 26 percent by 2035. Ramos, who has been working with Transform to make sure AC Transit receives enough public input on the project, says the BRT is needed to serve as a more local, accessible alternative to BART.
“BART’s great if you live near the BART, but anyone who thinks BART does the whole job doesn’t ride the 1 or the 1R,” Ramos said, referring to the crowded conditions he has seen on the bus line that travels between the Berkeley and Bay Fair BART stations.
In addition to AC Transit’s goals of greater convenience and greener commuting, Finger said, the project team wants to increase community involvement in the new transit line by bringing the public into the actual design of the BRT stations. The templates are designed to be open for customization, so each neighborhood community with its own stop will be able to help decide on design choices.
“We wanted to create an identity for this line,” Finger said. “We want the community to take ownership.”
In a series of meetings that will continue through January 2013, neighborhood residents will be able to work with AC Transit to decide on such station fixtures as lighting, landscaping, and the design of fencing, trim and artistic elements like murals. “If each station is owned by the neighborhood, the whole line becomes theirs,” Finger said.
At the meeting Wednesday night, the mood was almost impatient as attendees continually stopped Greene and Finger to ask when they would be able to get in on the final design of neighborhood stations. Connie Goldade, who is working on the project as an urban design architect—a designer of plant fixtures and greenery—said the whole design team is excited by this community input to the planning process. “The challenge is to see what the community concerns are, and try to make that work within the demands of the project,” she said.