Construction of New Bus Line About to Transform International Boulevard

Bus Rapid Transit should speed the commute for thousands of riders, but not in Berkeley or North Oakland.


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BRT will bring light-rail service to buses traveling from San Leandro to Oakland but not to UC Berkeley as originally envisioned.

Schematic courtesy of AC Transit

Despite opposition from Berkeley and San Leandro having shot holes in a grand plan to bring a new kind of bus line all the way from San Leandro to the university, AC Transit is now moving ahead with a $178 million system designed to make buses more like light rail.

BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit, will stretch 9.5 miles from the north end of San Leandro to Downtown Oakland. Alameda County Transit officials call it “Better Rapid Transit,” saying it will speed 38,000 daily riders along the corridor 28 percent faster than they go today.

The system is pushing ahead toward 2017 completion, despite a 2011 setback when the Berkeley City Council nixed the plan to have the bus line stretch up Telegraph Avenue to UC Berkeley.

Critics had claimed that street vendors near the university would be put out of business and that other merchants would suffer from a loss of parking. Meanwhile, pressure from members of the San Leandro City Council also resulted in a reduction of BRT’s reach into that city. As a result, the system will primarily serve working-class neighborhoods in Oakland.

“Residents in Berkeley and in other cities that would be served by BRT should be ashamed when a city like Los Angeles is showing more attention and progressive thinking towards public transportation than Berkeley,” griped Ruben Duarte on the East Bay Young Democrats blog, blaming “NIMBYs who just don’t want to build anything anywhere near anything.”

The route will feature raised platforms that allow buses to board level with the ground like subway cars, making it quicker for patrons to get on and off. Starting at the San Leandro BART station and pushing along International Boulevard and 12th Street to Downtown Oakland, it will have dedicated lanes just for BRT buses. Bus drivers will have a gadget to turn red lights green and keep buses moving faster than car traffic.

“In many ways, BRT improves upon traditional rail transit systems,” spokeswoman Jennifer DuBois said.

Riders will be able to get on a bus every five minutes during peak hours on the corridor, much of which travels through the blighted sections of International that are often featured on TV news reports about prostitution.

“This will make improvements on International Boulevard,” DuBois said. “It will revitalize it. Studies show that when that happens, businesses follow.”

The street, which one AC Transit supervisor described as “big, wide, and ugly,” will get new bus stops that resemble train stations every 3/10ths of a mile. Some 1,000 workers will build the lanes and stations, filling potholes, planting landscaping, and decorating the new stops with local art.

“People will find this makes their daily commute easier,” DuBois said. “Oakland is in the process of a rebirth, and this will be a part of it.”

Some of the biggest changes include a system where people will pay at stations before they get on the bus, efficiently cutting the time for stops. They also will be able to board through front and back doors. The lighted stations will be covered and provide some shelter from the elements. The stations will be in the medians, equally accessible from both sides of the street.

But some East Oakland merchants share the concerns of their Berkeley and San Leandro peers, worrying that congestion and a lack of parking could drive away their business. To protest, they hired tow trucks to block off center lanes of International to show how that could affect traffic. The protest ended when Oakland police diverted traffic off the area for safety reasons.

Clarence Johnson of AC Transit said the issues are being addressed and that there won’t be an overall loss of parking.

“There are probably people who didn’t want the Statue of Liberty to be put up either,” Johnson said. “This isn’t a new idea. We’re not exactly reinventing the wheel. It’s been done all over the world in Vancouver, Beijing, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Cleveland, and people had the same fears that didn’t come true.”

The downsides? Businesses will be hurt during the three years of construction, and some street parking will be lost. The transit agency intends to offset the losses with some $20 million to buy off-street parking lots in the Elmhurst and Fruitvale neighborhoods and to fund businesses forced to close during construction. Officials will also put up temporary signs to let customers know what’s going on and provide a 24-hour hotline.

Some $2.5 million will go toward improving lighting and sidewalks along International; another $2.5 million will fund a program of consultants to help businesses; and $1 million will be offered as business grants and loans to help redevelop the corridor. With work expected to last on International through June, the Oakland Running Festival’s March route will be moved off the street this year.

The city will lose 620 of its 2,277 parking spaces along the corridor but intends to make up for them by replacing curbside parking with diagonal spots, putting time limits on the spaces to discourage daylong parking in high-traffic areas, and adding off-street parking. The transit district said its goal is for 85 percent of the spaces to be full at any one time, meaning 15 percent will be available for parking.

The current bus line has 25,000 riders a day, and the district expects it to grow to 38,000 with the improvements. “These are folks who would be otherwise clogging the streets and having CO2 emissions,” Johnson said.

Fare prices are supposed to stay the same: $2.10 one-way or $5 all day. Travel times will be 28 percent faster than buses now during rush hours and 25 percent faster during the middle of the day. There will be 34 new bus stations with real-time arrival information.

“The thing that gets glossed over is that this is a very busy corridor, and the best studies show the Bay Area will add another 2 million people in the next 25 years,” Johnson said. “Alameda County is supposed to jump 28 percent. That will bring even more congestion.

“With no transportation planning now, in 20 years folks will be saying, ‘Why didn’t you think of this? Why didn’t you do something?’ They will have gridlock from one end to the other.”

If you want more information about the project, you can visit an Information Center at 3322A International Blvd. 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays. You can also follow progress at www.BRT.ACTransit.org.

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