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Friday, November 13, 2009

City May Be Moving Along Without Controversial Transit Plan

COUNCIL APPROVED $600K MEDIAN PROJECT FOR SAME AREA AS BRT

By STEVEN TAVARES
The Citizen
It does not take very long to figure out San Leandro city leaders dislike AC Transit's proposal to remodel the city's stretch of E. 14th Street with a dedicated bus lane. Through recent actions, the city may be quietly distancing itself from the $234 million project.

AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) has been kicked around since 2001. The city acquiesced to the transportation agency in 2006 when it tacitly stated its position to have the bus line end its southern route at San Leandro's downtown, which in itself will be transformed into what the city hopes will be a point of destination for shoppers and urban city dwellers. The newest version of the plan moves the ending point further down E. 14th to Bayfair and removes two portions of dedicated lanes along the route.

San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos has reiterated the city's official stance on BRT on countless occasions but the city council unanimously voted Sept. 8 to award a contract to the construction firm Joseph J. Albanese, Inc. for over $600,000 to beautify eight blocks of medians on E. 14th Street--the same path which AC Transit would eventually remodel the pathway. The approval sheds some light on the city's lack of enthusiasm for the project.

"They got their answer five years ago," said a former city official who dealt with early versions of the BRT plan. "They can't take no for an answer." The proposal from AC Transit needs the approval of the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro, of which the bus lane will cut through. AC Transit says over 22,000 passengers use the line which is laden with shops and points of employment.

While the city and AC Transit say they have worked together to mesh the plans of both entities, the approval of construction between 136th and 144th Avenues near the nearly constructed ninth grade high school campus reveals a rift in public comments and actual procedures. "If the city is for BRT," said the official, "then why did they approve $600,000 for landscaping?"

After a council meeting Nov. 2, Santos accepted the notion the city may be moving forward without BRT with the approval of the median project, but also said AC Transit would have to pay for any changes done to the reconstructed work if the city approves the BRT.

City Engineer Ken Joseph said, "This is not a statement as to whether the city is for or against the BRT." He says future work on the medians by AC Transit could be easily adapted by filing in sections of the median to remove left hand turns, which is hallmark of the BRT proposal. He also noted most of the median project deals with landscaping, which is also a feature of the BRT proposal.

The AC Transit plan would dramatically transform significant parts of E. 14th by removing the median and replacing it with trees and landscaping along with center-boarding bus stations. The main point of contention within the plan is the formation of a bus-only center lane the agency says will increase efficiency up to 15 minutes from one end of the line to the other. AC Transit officials say the plan will include level boarding for passengers, an off-bus fare payment station, real-time arrival signs and traffic signal priority for their buses. The plan also has an element of green planning which many of the council's more progressive members support.

AC Transit readily admits the plan has drawbacks. The city will lose parking spaces on stretches of the route and the flow of traffic will be decrease, something the city's noted transportation plan already hopes to create. One city official who recently visited similar transportation strategies in the Bay Area told The Citizen the city needs to encourage people to get out of their cars. "They don't like it at first, but I believe they will get used to it and see its benefits." But, for the time being, there has been a chorus of detractors who believe the construction of a median down the sometimes narrow thoroughfare will disrupt business and travel.

During a public discussion of the proposal Oct. 22, one resident of Sunnyside Drive, which abuts E. 14th, said trucks making deliveries to the numerous businesses on that stretch of route would disrupt the flow of traffic. According to the woman, trucks already double park on the two lane street and wondered how it would be alleviated with only one lane and a left turn. The representative had no answer, but said the agency would explore the problem. For their part, AC Transit has been aggressive in publicizing the plan with seven meetings in the past month, some heavily attended and some basically officials staring at each other.

AC Transit hopes to have the three city councils approve the BRT in the Spring of 2010. The city of Berkeley has also provided stiff opposition to plan. If approved, the project would begin construction in 2012 and completed three years later, but there is still question as to how the project will be funded. "They keep pushing this plan that will cost $243 million but there's not really any money behind it. Is this really going to happen?" said San Leandro Councilwoman Ursula Reed during a recent council meeting. Transit officials say funding will come from bridge tolls, the federal government, AC Transit sales tax and state funds. Reed, whose business-centric district lies on E. 14th said AC Transit officials told her the project could be funded in the future with loans or bonds. With a shaky economy the inclusion of state and federal funds have been a cause for concern. To further make some skeptics weary, the agency is attempting to shift $35 million to alleviate local bus routes along with the sudden resignation of its general manger, Rick Fernandez. "Each time we asked the same questions the answers came out differently. It didn't make me feel confident with the presenters," Reed said.

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