A few public servants have begun to consider the idea of reintroducing a bus-only lane on the Bay Bridge. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Oakland Assemblymember may revive Bay Bridge bus lane proposal

Rob Bonta exploring legislation with support of BART board member

Just shy of six decades ago, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge briefly gained a bus-only lane.

Freed from bumper-to-bumper car traffic in 1962, buses whizzed from the East Bay to San Francisco twice as fast as before. Alameda-Contra Costa bus ticket sales jumped 12.8 percent, according to news reports from that year.

But only a year later, facing pressure from car-commuters, the lane was removed.

Ever since, efforts to revive a bus-only lane on the Bay Bridge have come and gone, and come and gone again.

Now they’re back.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) has directed his staff to research legislative solutions to reviving a bus-only lane on the Bay Bridge, spurred by a suggestion from one of his constituents.

To be clear, his spokesperson Jerome Parra said, Bonta is “not committed to a bill,” but he is “researching the idea.” Yet even at this early stage the effort has the support of a member of the BART Board of Directors.

Bonta’s interest in bus-only lanes on the Bay Bridge was sparked by Oakland resident Carter Lavin, who responded to a call from Bonta on Facebook to “please share your best bill ideas with me! The more transformative and impactful, the better!”

Lavin’s suggestion was quickly seconded by BART board director Rebecca Saltzman, who responded “Absolutely this! AC Transit and BART would love to work with you on this,” to which Bonta replied “Let’s do it Carter Lavin & Rebecca Saltzman! Reaching out to you separately now! Rob.”

With a single Facebook comment and a boatload of exclamation points, an Oaklander helped recruit an assemblymember and a BART board director to revive a decades-long vanished transit proposal.

The Bay Area might be primed for its revival.

San Francisco’s $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center remains without train service but plays host to many transbay buses that cross the Bay Bridge, including 23 routes operated by AC Transit alone. Those routes, which originate from the East Bay, have grown in ridership by 5.8 percent just this last year.

“BART is over its capacity and that has translated into more riders choosing AC Transit Transbay service,” Robert Lyles, a spokesperson for AC Transit, said in a statement.

BART riders know the system is packed to the gills, which is what led director Saltzman to push for more AC Transit service.

“It’s needed for both increased transit capacity and reliability, and for redundancy, which is a big issue for transbay transit,” Saltzman told the San Francisco Examiner.

Removing buses from car traffic can speed up transit greatly, said Arielle Fleisher, transportation policy director at think tank SPUR, and also grow transit ridership. “People use buses when they’re fast, frequent and reliable,” she said.

AC Transit’s transbay routes right now, however, are challenged. They have an average on-time performance of about 60 percent, lower than most of the system’s other routes. That’s not an indictment of AC Transit, but more attributable to bumper-to-bumper Bay Bridge traffic, said transit advocate Chris Arvin.

“At peak times just the Bay Bridge portion of (a transbay) trip can take over 20 minutes,” Arvin told the Examiner. “If we want to make meaningful improvements to Bay Bridge congestion and emissions caused by crossbay travel, we need to bring dedicated transit space back to the Bay Bridge as it was originally designed for.”

As the Bay Area grows, its transportation options into San Francisco are increasingly stretched to the limit.

BART moves 27,000 people per hour under the Bay to San Francisco during AM rush hour, nearly twice as many people who cross by the Bay Bridge, which counts 14,200 people commuting by car per hour during the same period, according to BART data. BART carries about 240,000 transbay riders daily.

The number of people trying to squeeze into San Francisco for work is only set to grow in the coming decades, according to multiple studies, and as cited in the Bay Area Core Capacity Transit Study by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2017.

Those roughly 40,000 hourly morning commuters are going to become 70,000 hourly morning commuters by 2040, far beyond BART’s current capacity, according to the MTC.

That study called for a number of solutions, including a second transbay rail crossing in the coming decades. In the short term, however, it recommended the Bay Area “add dedicated bus transitway and transit priority infrastructure to reduce travel times” on the Transbay Corridor, which includes the Bay Bridge.

“This is an idea that comes around periodically, more frequently than Halley’s comet,” John Goodwin, a spokesperson for MTC said. So why hasn’t it ever come to fruition?

Both MTC and AC Transit are behind that plan, but Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over Bay Bridge roads, has historically pushed back against bus-only lanes, Tom Radulovich, a longtime transit advocate, told the Examiner.

Radulovich is also a past president of the BART Board of Directors, where he sat through many meetings between AC Transit, BART and other stakeholders.

“The chief opponent has always been Caltrans,” he said. “It’s a very car-focused culture at Caltrans, a very classic traffic engineering culture looking at maximizing automobile throughput when they should be looking at the person throughput through the bridge.”

Caltrans did not respond to a request for comment before press time. But Bonta’s interest in a bus-only lane on the Bay Bridge, Radulovich said, may prove to be key in pushing past any political roadblocks by Caltrans.

“The other proposals lacked that political leadership,” Radulovich said.

Whether or not Bonta really wants to get behind the wheel of the issue, however, remains to be seen. The public may not know until the end of January, after various deadlines to introduce bills in the assembly.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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