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New year, new transportation opportunities

A new year presents the opportunity to dream and hope for the new. It may seem that this is not the best moment to hope for new transit service: not only will a slipping economy mean less sales-tax revenue from which to fund local transit, but one state budget-balancing idea includes stripping local transit agencies of operating subsidies in order to jump-start the construction of High Speed Rail. This rests on a calculus that High-Speed Rail will create construction jobs, while transit service merely takes people to their existing jobs. From this government-centric perspective, efficiency and broadly-shared benefits lose to glamorous and expensive new projects. Similarly, BART wants to cut existing service while still building new stations in suburbs where ridership is likely to be low. But the East Bay is about to see enormous transit improvements that are incredibly cost-effective, and a less-cost-effective project is getting another chance.

The handful of choke points connecting Alameda to Oakland’s transportation system have long bedeviled planners. Car access is considered adequate, and only a new bike/ped/transit crossing is being studied, with options to be presented to Oakland and Alameda later this year. However, the need to fit a large Coast Guard ship on the estuary is a major physical barrier to building a bridge. A drawbridge would be useless to buses because it would introduce delays, and building a tall crossing would be prohibitively expensive. But Alameda has figured out how to create reliable transit service with just a bucket of paint: bus queue-jump lanes leading to the Posey Tube. By prioritizing buses over private traffic through the tube, buses avoid a significant bottleneck and restore reliability, at basically zero cost to the public. The lanes should be painted soon.

Though not quite free, Bus Rapid Transit is extraordinarily low-cost transit service that can accommodate tens of thousands of daily riders in its eight-mile corridor for only $250m, all of which has been secured. The Measure KK vote in Berkeley shows that the general public strongly supports Bus Rapid Transit, which confirms my personal experience: everyone I tell about it immediately grasps the concept and the benefit of bus-only lanes, and very few grumble that rail would be better or that cars deserve every last inch of asphalt. The project qualifies for the Federal Small Starts program because of its cost-effectiveness (a metric often not met by rail projects), and all funding has been secured including a generous allotment for overruns. Such a large transportation benefit for little cost, though perhaps uninteresting to state-level politicians, is the perfect project for a recession.

Ironically, as BRT proves its popularity and its cost-effectiveness becomes more valuable, several developments may have made an Oakland streetcar idea more feasible. Unveiled in 2001,  the multi-jurisdictional Long-Range Investment Study looked at BART to Jack London Square, improved transit connection to Alameda, and various Rapid Transit options (BRT, LRT, and a streetcar). Ultimately most ideas were found to be expensive or otherwise infeasible. Out of this study only the aforementioned transit plans are progressing. A MacArthur BART-Downtown-JLS-O29 streetcar circulator was found to be very expensive and have no identifiable funding source, and a cheaper “rubber-tire trolley” suggested by Councilmember Nancy Nadel was not studied. Yet, in the five years since a Congestion Management Agency meeting I attended in 2003 where those conclusions were reached, several funding sources for a downtown streetcar may have presented themselves.

Without radically rejiggering the Central District Redevelopment Area’s spending formula (which provides the vast majority of funds for citywide affordable housing projects), there is no obvious financing mechanism for a downtown streetcar. The City Center and Lake Merritt office districts alone could not bear the costs, and those property owners would be unlikely to see great benefit in shipping their tenants off to Jack London Square for lunch. But the Jack London Square II project is building a substantial amount of office space, and if O29 is approved soon, there will be thousands of new residents needing new transit service. But the real clincher is the Conley Report proposal for a Mid-Broadway large-scale retail district. Since there’s no BART station between 20th and 40th Streets, and the city will be hard-pressed to fund thousands of parking spaces to support new retailers, new transit service will also be needed at the other end of the proposed streetcar route, up Broadway to the MacArthur BART station. With a mix of new retail, office and residential large-scale development along the proposed streetcar line, the prospects for its funding are much brighter, especially as it combines transportation with economic development, and is a large infrastructure project that would create jobs.

As promised in her inauguration speech, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan will tomorrow present an urgent proposal to the Oakland City Council Rules Committee. She will ask that Oakland add actual infrastructure projects to its federal stimulus request which was woefully lacking when drawn up by the mayor, and adopt a strategy for lobbying Congress to get as many projects funded as possible. Transportation projects are expected to get additional attention, from implementing the Bicycle Master Plan to repaving every street and sidewalk in the city. Even though simple and cost-effective transit solutions are becoming more apparent, with the opportunities presented at the federal and local level (from Obama’s stimulus to Oakland’s retail revitalization plan), new transportation improvements are getting a fresh look and perhaps a fresh start.

Posted in actransit, alameda, bart, berkeley, brt, budget, california, citycouncil, development, downtown, kaplan, measurekk, o29, oakland, transportation.


11 Responses

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  1. artemis says

    Expensive + not-your-grandfather’s-public-works-bill = an Oakland streetcar? Pretty please??

    By the way, the Alameda Estuary crossing study is already over, and the report should be coming out quite soon. Check out http://www.estuarycrossing.org for their recommendations for bike/ped access between the two cities.

  2. Becks says

    I too am hopeful about Oakland’s transportation opportunities in the coming years, especially with Rebecca Kaplan on the council.

    Your comment about high speed rail is a bit of a stretch though. It’s absurd to claim that the state is “stripping local transit agencies of operating subsidies in order to jump-start the construction of High Speed Rail.”

    Yes, the state is likely to pull money from local transit agencies. And yes, they are putting money towards high speed rail. But they’re also taking money away from all sorts of local and state services and putting money towards other infrastructure projects, like highways. So there’s no clear-cut causal relationship here.

    Look dto, we all know you don’t like the high speed rail project because of the Pacheco alignment (and I don’t like that alignment either), but it’s unfair to blame the state’s budget problems on it. The true blame lies at the feet of Republicans, who refuse any new revenue increases, and of course Prop 13, which has nearly bankrupted our state.

  3. dto510 says

    Artemis – do you have a direct link to the Draft Feasibility study? The only links on the page you provided are to presentations and summaries of public input.

    Becks – yes, the state is considering cutting operating subsidies to build many new projects, HSR as well as highways and “local transit projects” (which probably means roads, not transit). The relationship isn’t causal as much as conceptual: politicians would rather create new government-funded jobs than to subsidize existing public services that get people to private-sector jobs. How many people will lose transportation to their jobs so that construction companies will have more jobs? It’s a very harmful trade-off.

  4. Becks says

    I agree that it doesn’t make sense to defund current transportation service to build new transportation (especially when it’s more roads), but that is not the only option. There are several revenue sources our state could tap so that we could both fund transportation agencies and pay for infrastructure projects that would create new jobs. We could reinstitute the vehicle license fee and raise the gas tax, for example. Both of these revenue proposals have been pushed by the Democrats but the Republicans are in some kind of alternate reality and don’t seem to realize (or care) that we cannot get ourselves out of this budget crisis without raising revenues.

  5. Claudia Cappio says

    Just FYI — Jack London Sq. Partners and O29 developers are on the hook for some kind of shuttle/bus service for their projects at some point during build-out. The rationale behind this requirement was the lack of current AC and BART service to provide adequate transit connections to their projects and the close proximity of both projects. There was some exploration about the Emery Go Round expanding routes as one option. Also – the City has explored the possibility of an eco-pass system from AC Transit — paying some annual amount per resident of these projects and receiving an annual AC pass in return. There’s also the idea of a fare free zone for downtown — AC has expressed big concerns about how difficult this would be to administer because some passengers would abuse it. Worth trying – it could rock and there could be a big decrease in headways. All food for thought as we enter ’09 and now have a big bus/transit advocate on the Council.

  6. artemis says

    DTO—The Alameda report hasn’t been released to the public yet, but as soon as it is, you’ll be able to find it on that page. I’m not sure of the ETA, but soonish.

  7. Ken O says

    I agree that city of oakland’s request for federal stimulus funds was pretty threadbare, with a lot of apparently not so useful line items.

    YOu can see the requests here:

    http://www.usmayors.org/mainstreeteconomicrecovery/stimulussurveyparticipantsdata.asp?City=Oakland&State=CA

  8. Ken O says

    Zero public transit components in Oakland’s federal funds request (link above)

    The only transport-related items are road repaving (some is okay – we need it) and police vehicles:

    “Prisoner Transport Vehicles – Since the OPD Jail closure in 2005, police officers shuttle between North County, Highland Hospital and Santa Rita jail. Additional transport vehicles will increase efficiency” (asking for 3 @ $260k total)

    Mayor, let us do this for you, we know you are part timing!

  9. VivekB says

    It’s worse than that, Ken. I did a per capita analysis comparing Oakland’s requests with SF, SJ, Alameda, and Tracy. We are at the bottom of the barrel by a LONG shot. SF is asking for 14X per capita, heck even Tracy is 5x per capita.

    http://www.rockridgeresidents.org/forums/showthread.php?t=370 has some basic #s, but if you follow it to the actual article you’ll see the per capita analysis for each of those cities per the categories in the mayoral request (ODBG, Energy, Public Safety, Streets/Roads, Water, etc)

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