Proponents of a new transit system that uses the light-rail concept with buses instead of trains hope its possible implementation in the East Bay may become the Bay Area prototype in a system that is gaining ground across the country.
In the Bus Rapid Transit system, passengers board from a platform, the doors close, and the bus – probably hybrid-electric driven – rides south in its own lane down the middle of the street.
In the local model, that street would be Telegraph Avenue.
As the bus approaches the Ashby Avenue intersection, the driver presses a button that extends the green light for the bus while all the cars slow as yellow turns to red. Cars are stopped at the lights the bus covers the 18-mile-corridor through Oakland to San Leandro in a fraction of the time it will take everyone else.
Compared to a rail system, BRT would be implemented at a fraction of the cost – $340 million as compared to the $890 million needed for light rail. The system would leave open the option of later installing a light-rail train system along the established route.
Last week, a committee of elected officials – including Mayor Shirley Dean, City Councilmember Kriss Worthington and representatives from Oakland, San Leandro and Alameda County – selected BRT as the East Bay’s preferred answer to traffic congestion, according to Seth Schneider, Project Express program director. Project Express is a nonprofit whose goal is to educate the nine Bay Area counties about the uses of rapid and express buses.
The committee has not ruled out a light-rail system, but the cost-effectiveness and the quicker implementation time of BRT won out – at least for now. The full Alameda County transit board will vote on August 2 to decide whether it will move forward on the committee’s recommendation, Schneider said.
“Given the cost-effectiveness of Bus Rapid Transit and its appeal,” he said, “Project Express wants to ensure that BRT is put into place and in operation before any money is spent on a more expensive light-rail option.”
When BRT could be in place depends on how quickly AC Transit and elected officials can put together project funding, Schneider said. BRT is sure to have quicker start-up than the more-expensive rail option, though.
But can the technology really be as simple as the push of a button?
“If you can get a bus to transcend the speed of the traffic, you’ve got a big win on your hands. But it’s no easy feat,” said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The MTC is the transportation planning, coordinating and financing agency for the nine-county Bay Area.
Jim Jarzab is BRT program manager at Valley Transportation Authority — Santa Clara County’s MUNI equivalent – where they’ve been working toward implementation for about six years. He is familiar with the difficulties.
“A lot of the traffic signals are extremely reliable, but not particularly advanced,” he said. “We’re working on moving all these technologies toward a current standard.”
And aside from the technical obstacles, there are also bureaucratic ones.
“You have to coordinate a lot of municipal and state transportation devices,” Jarzab said. “It takes a while for the coordination efforts to come to fruition.”
Yet BRT has already been implemented in some cities, and with excellent results, Schneider said. In Los Angeles, for instance, a form of Bus Rapid Transit called Metro Rapid is already in use.
“They had a 25 percent increase in ridership in the first 90 days,” he said, “And they did a survey that found a third of those people were new riders.”
This is good news, Worthington said, because he welcomes the decreased traffic BRT will bring.
“It won’t be an astronomical decrease, but every little bit helps,” he said.
Worthington noted two features of BRT that would benefit riders – proof of payment and increased bus frequency.
Proof of payment would allow riders to enter at any of the three doors on the bus, without showing tickets. Instead, they would buy monthly passes, which would be checked periodically by inspectors. This would increase the speed of BRT and make riding it less complicated.
But increased bus frequency may prove an even more important feature. Especially for those Bay Area residents who, dependent on public transportation, have resigned themselves to a long walk home if their shift ends after midnight.
“You won’t have to wait as long in between buses,” Worthington said, “and over time, they’ll extend the hours until it runs all night long.”
Dean sees BRT as the best immediate response to Berkeley’s transportation needs.
“My first love is light rail, but it’s a much more complicated project and much more expensive,” Dean said. “I’m excited about this possibility, and I think we need to go full-steam ahead.”