AC Transit Board President Chris Peeples hit the election trifecta on Tuesday, but by Friday morning, he didn’t sound in the mood for celebration.
By a 71.6 percent-28.4 percent margin, Alameda and Contra Costa voters passed Measure VV, a two-thirds measure extending AC Transit’s existing $48 per year parcel tax for another 10 years, ensuring a continuing source of needed extra cash for the two-county public bus system.
In Berkeley, voters decisively rejected Measure KK by a 23.04 percent-79.96 percent margin, not ensuring that AC Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit plans will go forward in the city, but at least ensuring that they won’t hit an immediate citizen roadblock.
And finally, Peeples himself beat back a spirited challenge to his at-large AC Transit board seat by AC Transit critic Joyce Roy, winning by a 64.3 percent to 34.9 percent margin.
“I feel pretty good,” Peeples said by telephone when asked about the electoral victories for himself and AC Transit.
But his mind was really on events currently going on in the state capitol, particularly in regards to the state’s continuing budget problems. While the legislature passed a budget last August for fiscal year ‘08-'09, gloomy economic forecasts that have since been released have caused Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to call a special legislative session to make substantial budget revisions. In the original budget, the legislature siphoned off some $1.7 billion in public transportation monies into the general fund in order to bring the state into balance.
“I’m a little paranoid about Sacramento and the special session and if they’re going to whack at transit funding again,” Peeples said.
Peeples said that there are “a whole lot of ugly choices out there” to balance the state budget, but only if Republican lawmakers are successful in holding to their united front against tax increases or any other revenue generating measures. If that Republican bloc can be cracked, Peeples said he would favor outgoing State Senate President Don Perata’s call for a return to the Vehicle License Fee as a way to keep state funding for local public transportation agencies intact. The VLF became a hot political topic in the 2003 recall election against former Governor Gray Davis, and Schwarzenegger abolished it as one of his first acts as governor.
The VLF “was a pretty fair and progressive tax,” Peeples said. “The more expensive your vehicle, the more you had to pay. Readopting it would put $6 billion back into the state budget.”
Asked if further state transportation budget cuts would trigger an AC Transit fare increase—something which was temporarily held off by the Measure VV campaign—-Peeples said, “I don’t know,” but added “I tend to think we won’t have one in the coming fiscal year.” The AC Transit board president said that state cuts would “probably mean service cuts” in the bus district, however.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
The AC Transit Board President said he was “pleased” with the defeat of Measure KK, the Berkeley citizen initiative that would have required a ballot measure every time the City of Berkeley proposed to close a city street lane for the use of public transit. AC Transit is proposing just such a street lane set-aside, of Telegraph Avenue from the Oakland border to UC Berkeley, as part of its proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line from downtown San Leandro to downtown Berkeley. AC Transit is counting on BRT as a major part of its plans to revive its waning fortunes.
“Regardless of its effect on BRT, KK was just bad government,” Peeples said. “Berkeley is a small city, but it’s not a 5,000-person New England village where you can hold quarterly town meetings to set town policy. Leaving the dedication of street lanes to a vote of the people was just crazy.”
But even if Measure KK had passed, making it unlikely that the Berkeley portion of BRT could have used dedicated lanes, Peeples said, “I don’t think that would have killed BRT at all.”
He called the proposed high-speed route a “combination of two major AC Transit routes” (the old International Boulevard-E. 14th Street lines and the Telegraph Avenue lines linking Berkeley and San Leandro to downtown Oakland) that will benefit from whatever form of BRT eventually comes out of the complicated planning process.
Peeples' major concern for BRT, now that Measure KK has been defeated, is how to bridge the gap between the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), the document that began the public planning process, and the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that will end it.
At many public meetings in recent months, BRT critics have attacked some of the plans and proposals outlined in the DEIR, but Peeples said that AC Transit planners have made significant alterations and mitigations in response to public input since the DEIR was originally published. The problem of public perception about BRT, he said, is that those changes are not reflected in any public document. Peeples estimated that the final EIR is not due to be released for another nine months or a year.
“A second draft EIR is a possibility, but there may be legal problems associated with that,” Peeples said. “But I’ve been urging (AC Transit) staff to come out with some sort of interim document so that the public can see the amount of work that’s been done.”
Another alternative, Peeples said, might be to release AC Transit’s BRT changes and additions through working papers associated with the public process now going on in the three proposed BRT cities—Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro. City councils in each of these cities will be coming up with preferred local alternatives to AC Transit’s BRT plan, a process which will generate public documents in each of the cities. When the public process in each of the three cities is completed, AC Transit will then take the individual city's preferred local alternatives and try to work them into the finished BRT proposal.
In the meantime, Peeples said that “at some point” while the final EIR is being worked on, the AC Transit board will hold a public workshop on BRT to include reports and documents from “our staff, our consultants, and the staff of the three affected cities” in order to bring both the AC Transit board and the public up to speed on the progress being made on the project.
Defeated but Not Silenced: Roy Speaks Out
Although she lost decisively to Chris Peeples in the at-large AC Transit race in last week’s election, retired Oakland architect and AC Transit rider activist Joyce Roy showed no signs of slowing down her criticisms of the bus agency in general or Peeples in particular. Following the election, Roy released the following email to supporters:
“I lost by 196,506 to 107,341, about 65 percent to 35 percent,” she said. “It shows one does not need to do anything to serve bus riders and operators to be elected again and again to the board. In fact, you can promote a disservice to them by promoting a bus that they hate. All you need to do is belong to every political club ever invented with members that know nothing about what is going on at AC Transit and don’t ride buses. And schmooze every elected official who likewise don’t ride buses or know anything about AC Transit, except what AC Transit management and Chris tells them. Both management and Chris believe saying it is so makes it so, like ‘the Van Hools are the best bus in the world’ and their hydrogen fuel cell program which consists of three Van Hool buses which break down frequently, is ‘the best in the world.’”
She continued: “I did not enter this race because I wanted to be an elected official and sit on a podium. I want to change AC Transit from an agency which serves the needs a foreign bus manufacturer and, instead, serves the needs of its bus riders and operators. Serving on the board seemed to be an effective way to do that especially by removing the biggest obstacle to that change. But I am not going to quit in my effort to change AC Transit. I have more arrows in my quiver, but I will need to call on you to help. I may have lost the battle but I haven’t lost the war.”