CA: Why BRT Has Stalled in Bay Area

May 08--Bus rapid transit was supposed to be the future of public transportation.

A technology combining more efficient buses and relatively simple improvements to streets, BRT, as it's known, has been heralded as a fairly cheap high-capacity transit system -- a subway on tires -- that can be put on the streets quickly.

But in the Bay Area, the introduction of bus rapid transit is advancing at a pace akin to that of a Muni bus stuck in rush-hour traffic. More than a dozen years after the region started talking about the speedy buses, the Bay Area is still waiting for its first one.

Bus rapid transit projects in San Francisco, the East Bay and the South Bay are still in the works, but they have stalled after running into community skepticism and opposition to the removal of traffic lanes and parking spaces. The opposition from merchants and residents has caused some cities, even progressive bastions like Berkeley, to refuse to allow transit-only lanes or to drop out of BRT projects altogether.

"It's been a big challenge," said Randy Rentschler, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's regional transportation planning and financing agency. "We think of the Bay Area as a world-class area, but we are really a group of 100-plus cities -- all with different concerns and ambitions. That makes it really hard to get BRT projects done."

Bus rapid transit uses long buses with low floors and extra doors. They stop at evenly spaced stations that are bigger and fancier than bus stops. The buses sneak through stoplights using onboard technology that gives them priority. The most efficient BRT systems use exclusive lanes -- at least on congested stretches.

South Bay leads way

The Bay Area's first BRT line to start construction -- and the one likely to be the first to carry passengers -- is the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority's route from Santa Clara to San Jose's Alum Rock neighborhood. Construction of the 7.2-mile line started in March, and the first bus is expected to roll in fall 2015 -- about 11 years after the idea was conceived.

Compared with the proposal to put a BRT line on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, that's speedy. The notion of taking a lane of traffic in each direction and transforming it into a dedicated lane for fast buses was first discussed in the late 1990s, with planners taking a look in 2001.

Since then, it has languished in a lengthy planning, review and public-participation process that has looked at everything from the loss of parking to the preservation of allegedly historic streetlights. San Francisco's first rapid bus isn't scheduled to cruise down Van Ness until early 2018.

"It is certainly longer than anyone would like," said Michael Schwartz, a San Francisco County Transportation Authority planner working on the project. "We would have liked for it to have been done five years ago."

AC Transit's efforts to bring BRT to the East Bay -- originally from San Leandro to Berkeley -- have been equally lengthy and perhaps even more hard-fought. The transit agency began planning the route in 2001 but encountered a lot of opposition, especially along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where merchants and neighbors attacked the plan to eliminate parking and a lane of traffic with the kind of fervor once reserved for opposing the Vietnam War.

The Berkeley City Council voted to drop out of the bus rapid transit plan in 2011, shortening the 16.9-mile project to a 9.5-mile route from the San Leandro BART Station to 20th Street in downtown Oakland. The line will take away 237 parking spaces along the stretch and claim a lane of traffic in each direction, mostly along International Boulevard through East Oakland.

New outcry

Even though the project is about 65 percent designed and scheduled to break ground early in 2015, a new outbreak of community opposition is threatening to delay the scheduled 2017 opening. Last week, a group of merchants hired tow trucks to block the two center lanes of traffic on International Boulevard to demonstrate the effect of dedicating lanes to BRT service. For safety reasons, Oakland police blocked the other two lanes, forcing drivers to detour but failing to create gridlock.

Merchants in the area complained that their businesses, many dealing in furniture, automotive parts or services, and items sold in bulk, would suffer if customers couldn't park in front of their stores. And removing a lane of traffic, they said, would create congestion and drive away business.

Worried about access

"I've been here over 36 years," said Manuel Romero, who owns an artistic glass studio on the boulevard. "I rely on parking very much for my business. BRT would eliminate my business; trucks have to come to drop off glass, pick up glass."

AC Transit officials say they're working with merchants all along the BRT route to come up with plans for replacement parking and to cope with the change from a street centered on cars to one focused more on transit and pedestrians.

In the South Bay, VTA officials are also having trouble selling that vision. While the Alum Rock BRT project is under construction, plans to build a similar line along El Camino Real -- the transit system's busiest corridor -- have lagged in the face of opposition to about 10 miles of transit-only lanes from Santa Clara to Mountain View.

VTA officials still hope to convince them of the merits of a full-fledged BRT system with dedicated lanes, but the debate has slowed the project, and the outcome is uncertain.

"We need to meet the demand for what's going to happen in that corridor," said Brandi Childress, a VTA spokeswoman. "But people love their cars, and El Camino has been a commute corridor for decades. It's a back door whenever 101 backs up."

Creating a bus rapid transit system doesn't have to be agonizingly slow. A group of San Francisco politicians and planners learned that last year when they visited Mexico City on a tour hosted by a transportation think tank that promotes BRT. Mexico City's first BRT line took just three years to move from idea to running buses.

Annie Weinstock, the U.S. director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which sponsored the trip, said the time to build BRT varies widely by city, but that San Francisco is probably the slowest.

"The U.S. is generally slower than the rest of the world," she said. "California is generally slower than the rest of the U.S., and the Bay Area is slower than the rest of California."

Moving faster

Chicago is moving far more quickly, she said, having started to plan a BRT line in 2010 that is expected to be operating this year. Even Southern California moves a little bit faster when it comes to bus rapid transit. California's first BRT line -- a 16-mile service in San Bernardino County with 5.2 miles of dedicated lanes -- started service at the end of April, about 10 years after transportation planners first thought of the line.

Speeding the arrival of BRT lines is easier when there's a political champion pushing for the lines, Weinstock said, citing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's commitment to BRT. Dave Rutherford, a spokesman for the San Bernardino Express, said it pays to educate business owners and political leaders of the potential of BRT to attract business and even help with economic development.

"You can't convince everyone it's a good project," he said, "but you have to keep in mind what is the greater good."

Ironically, San Bernardino planners used San Francisco's well-established business districts as an example of how public transportation can build local economies.

No role models

Schwartz said one of the difficulties in selling BRT in San Francisco has been convincing people of its promise when there's no nearby example -- and few around the country, particularly in places where people are likely to have ridden them.

"It's a first-ever thing," he said. "People think, oh, it's just a bus project. But it's a transformative bus project that really feels like a different mode."

While the Van Ness project has lagged, Schwartz said, planners have applied some of the lessons they've learned to a project for Geary -- from Market Street to 48th Avenue -- which is to follow about a year behind, despite much merchant concern over parking and traffic. Planners are working with merchants on parking and loading zones, he said, and the process is moving more quickly.

And someday, sleek BRT buses will be whizzing along Van Ness and Geary, Schwartz said.

"If we're able to put a great project out on the street, people won't remember this long timeline," he said. "They won't say, 'It took so long to build this.' They'll say: 'What a great project.' "

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan

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