AC Transit, Berkeley, Bus Rapid Transit, East Bay, MTC, Oakland, Transit Funding

Whither East Bay BRT?

AC Transit BRT
Courtesy of AC Transit.

The AC Transit Board of Directors held a meeting to confront head-on the risk that the agency’s current financial crisis poses to its planned 17-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) project, which would extend from downtown Berkeley to San Leandro, via Telegraph Avenue, downtown Oakland, and East 14th Street. The State has postponed allocating an important chunk of funding for BRT, which will delay the project. AC Transit also plans to cut about 15% of its service hours to set right its operating deficit. The agency is thus considering using BRT funds to enhance its operating budget. Doing so would alleviate the pain of service cuts, but it would also put on hold a major regional project that is the centerpiece of AC Transit’s planning vision.

The directors finally decided upon a compromise solution, authorizing some of the money to be redirected toward operations and restore some service that was to be cut. However, they also decided to hold onto another portion of the funding, at least for now. That likely won’t be the end of the story.

The discussion revolves around the two pots of money that AC Transit has considered tapping into. The first pot of money is from the Congestion Mitigation & Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ), which is a federal program that provides money for surface transportation projects that improve air quality and reduce congestion. The second pot of money is Regional Measure 2 (RM2), a bridge toll increase authorized by Bay Area voters in 2004, the proceeds of which are spent on transportation projects that have some nexus to improving congestion in a bridge corridor.

AC Transit staff recommended that $35 million of CMAQ funds and $45.6 million of RM2 funds, both slated for the BRT project, be reallocated toward operations. This would provide an additional $80.6 million for operations — preventing layoffs and restoring about half of the service slated to be cut. It is possible for the funds to be reprogrammed from capital to operations, although doing so requires some effort and bureaucratic maneuvering.

CMAQ and RM2: A Smelly Bowl of Alphabet Soup

The CMAQ chunk of money is relatively uncontroversial. There is general agreement that the CMAQ funds should be redirected toward operations, because doing so would give AC Transit access to an additional source of operations money that could lessen the severity of the planned service cuts. The agency was essentially forced to implement these cuts by the State, which left transit operations out in the cold by zeroing out State Transit Assistance (STA) funds from the budget. Redirecting CMAQ funds for operations would require the approval of both MTC and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). There is also the caveat that CMAQ money must be used within a 3-year period, and only for new or expanded service. This means that technically, AC Transit could only use CMAQ money to operate the new routes it has proposed as part of its service adjustment plan; but that would free up more non-CMAQ money to restore service that doesn’t qualify as new or expanded. Thus, if reallocated, the CMAQ money would offset part of the service cuts and reduce hardship to riders who depend on bus service as their lifeline.

Redirecting the RM2 funds is another issue entirely. Earlier in September, Rick Fernandez (AC Transit’s General Manager) contacted MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger, proposing the idea of reprogramming funds. The response from MTC more or less tied together the fate of the CMAQ and RM2 funds: if CMAQ is to be reprogrammed, then so must RM2. This condition was ostensibly issued on the ground that AC Transit should produce an operating plan that is “sustainable” for some length of time, and that redirecting only part of the money would be an insufficient emergency stopgap measure. It was basically this directive that led to the staff recommendation to reprogram both CMAQ and RM2 funds together. Reprogramming RM2 funds would be problematic, however, for a few reasons, beyond just the fact that shifting money around, while technically permitted, nonetheless appears dodgy to voters.

First, there is the “swap” mechanism that would be used to reprogram the money. RM2 money is used for both capital investment and operations, but MTC cannot simply decree that an RM2 capital dollar be switched to an RM2 operating dollar. Rather, AC Transit must undergo a swap with another agency’s project. MTC would facilitate a transfer of AC Transit’s RM2 capital share to another project, and then the agency sponsoring that other project would commit to AC Transit the same amount of operating funds. It was suggested in so many words that the other agency in question here could be BART, and that the swapped capital funds could shore up the dreadful Oakland Airport Connector. (The OAC still has a 20% funding gap, which BART plans to fill using a TIFIA loan from the federal government.) Even if some AC Transit service is restored in the bargain, there would still be something ironically tragic about cannibalizing BRT to build the worst-than-useless airport connector.

Another problem, though, is what shifting RM2 would mean for the BRT project. Reserving this store of money for BRT demonstrates that the Bay Area has made a financial commitment to the project. This strong local match has made the BRT corridor an attractive candidate for federal Small Starts funding, which was planned to supply almost one-third of the $235 million project cost. Rick Fernandez suggested that reprogramming RM2 is not unduly problematic, believing that once AC Transit had that pot of money at its disposal, it could use it for a variety of purposes, including BRT. This is really a red herring, as it’s extremely unlikely that cash-strapped AC Transit would redirect precious operating funds in this fashion. The more likely scenario is that RM2 would simply fund operations, not BRT. To the extent that losing RM2 also means losing out on federal funding, what we have on our hands is an evaporating BRT budget. Work on the environmental document will continue, with an estimated completion date in Spring 2010 — and it’s also possible to reduce the scope of the project, by focusing on the high ridership East 14th Street segment of the route. But withdrawing these critical sources of funding would realistically postpone BRT indefinitely.

Where Things Stand (For Now)

The Board ultimately decided to support the redirecting of CMAQ, but it refused to disturb RM2 for the time being — instead wanting to take a few months to evaluate the issue further and explore other potential sources of funding. In light of how little notice was given to the public about this special meeting, holding off on such a major reprogramming of RM2 funds was the correct decision. Indeed, given the precarious circumstances of this meeting, the Board’s vote here was just about as good as we could hope for at this time, and the directors should be commended for not immediately giving way to MTC’s directive. But the vote also means that this issue remains unresolved. MTC will likely not be pleased to learn that the directors held back on RM2, and we may see another showdown over this issue in the near future to decide the fate of this funding, and the fate of BRT.

But leaving aside alphabet soup for the moment, what’s at stake here? Although San Francisco has as a number of transit corridor projects in the works, the Telegraph/East 14th BRT corridor is the only true transit expansion project in the eastern half of the Bay Area’s urban core. (We omit the Oakland Airport Connector, which, for all intents and purposes, is closer to a toy than true transit.) For an urban area with more than a half million people, which is projected to absorb significant future growth, it will not be sufficient in the long-term for AC Transit to merely grasp onto any straw it can find, in a desperate (and, in this case, unsuccessful) attempt to maintain current service levels. That approach is merely defensive. Indeed, the long-term health and viability of the agency may well depend on its ability to go on the offensive, by delivering more robust service on trunk corridors. That service must be more reliable, faster, and more comfortable than current bus service to entice a significant number of people from their cars. Investing in some form of dedicated transitway will be necessary to eliminate transit delay due to congestion, streamline operating costs, and to ensure livability on the major avenues that are well-suited to absorb higher density.

While many of the public speakers in favor of the funding shift were people from Berkeley who have been vocally opposed to BRT all along (and thus showed a less than good faith interest in preserving transit service), others were transit-dependents who were genuinely worried about how the service cuts would affect their lives. I do not want to discount these concerns. The Board’s support of reprogramming CMAQ while maintaining RM2 for the time being is a good compromise that favors riders, while acknowledging the need to take the time to collect more information. Even if the RM2 money is ultimately diverted to operations as well, at least that decision would theoretically follow a more thorough investigation and public process, rather than being rushed with little public notice.

It is incredibly sad that the State of California’s theft of transit funds has put AC Transit into such a difficult position, pitting the hardship of a disenfranchised ridership against a good project that will attract more people to transit. If we lived in a state and nation that truly recognized the value of good transit — and that put its money where its mouth is on the same — we would not be allocating untold billions of dollars to new freeways, while artificially forcing transit agencies to make the difficult and unfair choice between running current service and setting aside a modest sum of money for future investment.

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Discussion

13 thoughts on “Whither East Bay BRT?

  1. Again the Bay Area finds itself a victim of poor and fragmented planning. However, there are possibly silver linings in the present proposals.

    BRT in the East Bay is a first stage in taking transit to a new level, but the use of BRT technology, while cost effective, is perhaps far from optimal. Like the Orange Line in LA, the planned BRT corridor is a single route- the sort of alignment that light rail is optimized for. Also, unlike the Orange Line, it is in a dense urban corridor along streets where space is at a premium and diesel buses will hardly enhance them as a vibrant multi-use facilities. Electric traction and a constrained right of way (for bike lanes and sidewalk extensions) could be essential to the success of this urban corridor. LA’s Orange Line, along an old railroad alignment and with a serious disconnect to local neighbourhoods and the Metro Red Line has already proven too much for BRT to take on. (BRT in urban situations makes more sense where there are multiple destinations planned- Seattle was/is a good example with the Downtown Transit Tunnel). So perhaps a wait may fortuitous here?

    I am also hopeful that any (essential) restoration of cuts by AC Transit, might benefit from the work they have done in anticipation. It has made them look closely at their network and come up with some original solutions. (Ironically, the mess that is the 1R rapid service is not one of them). I still live in hope that AC Transit will recognize the importance of frequency on its core and secondary services, and might finally use the Van Hools as proper multiple door buses to speed up access and egress.

    Posted by Mike Jones | 27 September 2009, 8:54 am
  2. If the governator hadn;t absconded with the spillover funds and legislature hadn’t stolen the STA funds none of this would be necessary. As to the legitimacy of these swaps, MTC and AC have done this previously in more questionable deals.
    If this forces a better BRT plan everyone wins except the vendors. BRT w/o the other necessary routes would be like arteries w/o capillaries.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 27 September 2009, 11:58 am
  3. While it would be ideal to have light-rail and or “electric traction” along the proposed East Bay BRT corridor, the reality is that those systems would require 10 times the amount of funding that is nowhere in sight (if the above article is any indication). However, East Bay BRT would set up the right-of-way needed to implement Light Rail and or electric traction in the future, when the State Legislature and the electorate makes funding transit a priority.

    Meanwhile, BRT is the best solution to clear overcrowding on the 1R, worsening dwell times, and delays created by increasing amounts of car traffic. The fact that AC Transit has not cut back the 1R is not ironic, but simply logical. It is along the 1R and the 72R routes where AC Transit has seen the most amount of growth in ridership. Reductions are being made where analysis show the lowest passenger counts.

    Additionally, getting riders to these “trunk lines” is in AC Transit’s long-term and best interest if they would like to attract the passenger counts they have anticipated for the BRT.

    In respect to vendors, any kind of enhanced transit increases safety, and puts more “feet on the street”, which ultimately improves conditions for vendors. It’s the reason why neighborhood scale vendors are successful where they are now, and not where transit and traffic whizzes by at 30MPH.

    Posted by Joel Ramos | 28 September 2009, 11:15 am
  4. Joel,

    I am not against the 1R, just that it has had problems, and as it is the corridor route for BRT it is ironic that they have no ostensible plans for it. Such as, splitting it in two. It suffers specifically from being too long while the 51, which they are splitting, suffers due to congestion on College Ave.

    Yes, trams would cost more (a lot more) but you do get something for that money. Diesel buses (and even natural gas ones) really don’t mix with a dense urban environment- yes lots of cities use them. Perhaps, guided trolley buses might be a cheaper solution, but diesel BRT is largely a suburban solution.

    PS. There is a new BRT project in Cambridge (UK) that, to my mind, better utilises the advantages of BRT technology- it uses guided buses.

    Posted by Mike Jones | 28 September 2009, 1:18 pm
  5. I’m amazed that anyone considers the East Bay BRT proposal a serious effort at improving transit. If you look at the DEIR or the AC Transit Small Starts proposal, you see that even after the addition of fancy bus stations, 5-minute headways, and faster buses, BRT is projected to only add about 4500 transit riders per day. This at a cost of $250+ million.

    (In the Small Starts proposal, the exact numbers are 585,000 transit trips per day in 2015 without BRT and 594,000 transit trips per day with BRT. Since most folks make a round trip, 1 rider = 2 transit trips. Thus 9000 additional transit trips per day = 4500 additional transit riders.)

    It is hard for me to believe that there isn’t another more cost-effective way to entice more people to use public transit.

    Posted by Jim Bullock | 28 September 2009, 10:42 pm
  6. Somebody should spend some time looking at the hundreds of millions of ways in which MTC’s Steve Heminger has used and continues to use the infinitely-deep, staff-controlled slush of RM-2 bridge tolls as his personal kickback and sleaze-delivery fund.

    BART Warm Springs.

    Caldecott tunnel.

    BART Monorail monorail monorail.

    Scandalously, utterly appallingly bad recent BATA bond interest rate mismanagement coverup.

    TransLink(tm).

    Unusable 511.org run by military contractors

    How about over a hundred million dollars of potentially transit-benefiting tolls simply GIVEN AWAY as FasTrak(tm) discounts, for no purpose whatsoever other than to make MTC-staff-reported uptake rates look good? If I were to ask with a straight face for a $100m for an advertising campaign for FasTrak(c)(r) I’d be laughed out of the room, but this is in effect what BATA (ie MTC executive staff’s) toll giveaways have done … at the same time they cry poor mouth when any urban transit operator seeks any financial assistance.

    The criminal Dumbarton rail takedown.

    Oh, and that little detail of the $5 BILLION DOLLAR overrun on the Bay Bridge East Span — the same span for which Heminger (MTC point person and puppet master on the so-called Bay Bridge Design Task Force of the late 1990s) and his mentor Larry Dahms rigged an in-house-only “competition” and which they promised on a stack of bibles would be delivered for $1bn, and less than any possible sort of retrofit. Where’s the accountability?

    Basically, anybody Steve Heminger wants to reward (ie BART contractors, Cubic, the Seismic Retrofit Sopranos who’ve never once delivered anything near budget, etc) gets anything they want courtesy of his personal $750,000 per day toll slush fund. Anything he doesn’t like (ie Caltrain, anything that involves a nasty old stinky old BUS or anything that benefits transit users more than construction contractors) gets the complete shaft.

    Somebody should do some digging.

    A pity we don’t have any newspapers around here, or any politicians (outside of Bates from Berkeley) sitting on MTC who aren’t either co-opted by staff, on the take (what is it with the permanent SF Mayor’s “representative” at MTC anyway?), mentally incapable, or comatose.

    Posted by Richard Mlynarik | 29 September 2009, 7:47 am
  7. You don’t need to dig particularly deep; the record is clear just looking at which projects have been funded at the expense of which other projects that have been defunded. Unfortunately, some of the few useful transit projects around here (Dumbarton, AC BRT) are populating the latter list, while BART extensions that will probably be lightly used — but which involve lots of juicy tunnels, els, and concrete pouring — populate the former. Caltrain electrification would also be on the latter list, were it not for the fact that high-speed rail has come to rescue it.

    There’s no motivation for Heminger or MTC to be accountable. Heminger himself isn’t elected, and I would wager only a small percentage of the Bay Area has even heard of him, let alone have any sense of what his priorities are. MTC Commissioners are largely elected officials, but those are held accountable by what they do in their own jurisdictions, not based on their votes at MTC, which are also generally unknown to the population at large.

    I used the word “ostensible” to describe the “sustainable plan” that Heminger demanded of AC Transit, because it’s more likely he’d rather just have the RM2 capital dollars go somewhere else, i.e. BART. There’s not really another reasonable explanation for why these two pots of money were tied together, except that Heminger wanted RM2, and used the short-term (3-year) usage of CMAQ as the excuse to demand a long-term plan. Unless you’re hostile to relatively inexpensive, but nonetheless useful, urban transit projects, there’s little reason to demand that ACT gut its single major project-in-planning for the sake of a “sustainable long-term financial plan” to solve problems that have arisen from what will probably be a short-term economic downturn. The sad part is that this really is only the latest in a long string of similar funding maneuvers in the past.

    Posted by Eric | 29 September 2009, 8:15 am
  8. They should cancel the OAC, replace it with the proposed TransForm BRT or a Heathrow style PRT system, fully fund the ACT BRT system, the Muni Van Ness and/or Geary BRT system(s), and the Dumbarton rail bridge.

    I can’t believe the OAC may actually benefit from AC Transit’s financial difficulties! Is anybody talking lawsuit against the OAC? So many better projects get delayed or killed over lawsuits, maybe for once a lawsuit can be used for the benefit of transit.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 29 September 2009, 4:34 pm
  9. lyqwyd, there is definitely an advocacy movement going against the OAC, especially leading up to next week’s Oakland City Council meeting. (I’ll have a post about that either tonight, or tomorrow.)

    It’s not precisely a lawsuit, but advocates have filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration, arguing that the OAC implementation violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. If the FTA agrees, that would jeopardize some of the funding. There are a few ways that this project could still be slowed down or even effectively stopped in spite of BART, and that is another avenue being pursued.

    Posted by Eric | 29 September 2009, 4:40 pm
  10. That is good to hear, I’m for anything to stop the OAC.

    Are you aware of any organizations that are fighting the OAC that are in need to donations?

    Posted by lyqwyd | 30 September 2009, 8:40 am
  11. TransForm has been leading the charge against the OAC, and they’re worthy of your donation, even setting aside the OAC issue.

    Also, the OAC post I mentioned yesterday afternoon is now up.

    Posted by Eric | 30 September 2009, 9:41 am

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