AC Transit is building a faster, more reliable bus line on International Boulevard in East Oakland. But some locals are worried that the project will be one more thing forcing them out of the city.
Change is coming to International Boulevard.
Along East Oakland’s main street, concrete barriers wall off the middle lanes of the street for blocks at a time, forcing traffic into a single lane in each direction.
The construction is temporary, but some of the changes to vehicle flow will be permanent. Over the next few years, traffic lanes and many parking spaces will disappear to make way for a public transit project that promises to remake the community.
It’s the centerpiece of Oakland’s redevelopment plans for one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
In late 2019, AC Transit plans to begin service on the East Bay’s first “bus rapid transit” line. Bus rapid transit, or BRT, is essentially an express bus service with dedicated lanes and elevated stations designed to speed up boarding. AC Transit’s buses will also have the ability to make traffic lights stay green. The $213 million bus system will stretch from downtown through Fruitvale, pass near the Oakland Coliseum, and finish at the San Leandro BART station.
“You'd be cruising along, mostly stopping only at stations,” says Joël Ramos, a planning director with the transportation advocacy group Transform. He says the system will save riders around 30 percent of their travel time.
AC Transit advertises that the line will provide the speed and reliability of light rail at a fraction of the cost. Forty-one percent of the project’s projected cost comes from federal grants.
AC Transit currently carries carries 25,000 riders per day along the corridor.
“It's so crowded, it's so slow,” says Ramos. “It's an experience that was really hurting for some improvements.”
Although the project will bring faster, more reliable public transit, some locals are worried that because gentrification has hit Oakland so hard, this project will end up forcing them out of the city.
Better transit, but who’s it for?
In front of Allen Temple Baptist Church on International Boulevard and 85th Avenue, Reverend Buford picks a hypodermic needle off the ground.
“We're trying to make [East Oakland] livable in the midst of prostitution, and needles being on the ground,” says Buford. “These are the odds we’re working against.”
Buford’s official title at Allen Temple is Prophetic Justice Minister, which he says is “kind of like being a policy analyst for the Lord.”
As a sacred policy analyst, Buford says his job was to find out how the AC Transit plan would affect the local black and Latino communities.
“My analysis is that they don't care about us,” says Buford. “They made plans but we weren't in those plans.”
The bus line was billed as a way to serve low income residents. But to Buford, it looked like it was designed to skip over the poor neighborhoods as quickly as possible.
“In order to do that you've got to fly by a whole lot of stops,” says Buford.
The BRT will replace almost all local bus service along International Boulevard, according to an email from AC Transit. Stations will be spaced roughly a third of a mile apart. Buford says the express bus will be most attractive for a new kind of resident: yuppies commuting to tech jobs.
“They're making this so that the people who need to move here from Silicon Valley won't have so far to move,” says Buford. “That's really what's going on, let's face it.”
Business owners say they were caught unawares
Under AC Transit’s original plans, the BRT line would have continued North from Downtown Oakland along Telegraph Avenue, terminating in Downtown Berkeley.
Berkeley residents and business owners rebelled, complaining the project would choke traffic and remove parking. After sitting through late nights of public commenting, the Berkeley City Council shot down the proposal in 2010. AC Transit settled on building just a part of the line, mostly serving East Oakland.
Unlike their well-organized counterparts to the North, the Oakland business owners who were reached for this story said they weren’t aware of AC Transit’s plans until they had already been approved by the city.
AC Transit spokesperson Robert Lyles says the agency did substantial outreach with merchants and homeowners during planning of the project, including flyers, door-to-door outreach and community meetings.
It “flies in the face of everything we've done throughout this process to say they weren't included and couldn't give input,” says Lyles.
Sean Perry, who owns Perry’s Furniture on International and 72nd Avenue, says he first heard about BRT when construction was being planned for his block.
“Nobody I’ve talked to had a clue,” says Perry. “It was already a foregone conclusion.”
Yellow signs posted outside Perry’s Furniture announce that the store is moving. Perry says he still hasn’t found another home for the store, and he may have to close down for good.
A threat to businesses that rely on cars
Perry says his father opened the store 65 years ago. Business has been bad since the recession, Perry says, but BRT construction was “the last nail in the coffin.” BRT street construction has been in front of his shop, or nearby, since March. Traffic trickles by in single lanes, and there’s no street parking on the block.
He says old merchants are being forced out of the neighborhood.
“They're going to do it like they've done Emeryville,” says Perry. “It's going to be higher-end, clean shops, restaurants, apartments. It'll be different.”
Many other businesses on the boulevard rely on vehicle traffic and street parking.
On International and 20th, Vicente Soto sells and repairs washers and dryers. He says the BRT station planned to be built outside his door will only obstruct his customers. He’s not expecting anyone to take their new drying machine home on the bus.
Soto says the city is helping him relocate his shop. His neighbor, Allen Nguyen, on the other hand, says he’s received no assistance from the city or AC Transit. He sells beauty supply products in bulk. His customers drive.
Joël Ramos, the BRT advocate at Transform, acknowledges that making the street more friendly to pedestrians and transit is “not going to work out very well or as well for some of these auto-oriented businesses.”
Ramos says he wants those businesses to thrive. Transform helped create a city office that secured $2 million to prop up local businesses threatened by the changes.
Given Oakland’s much fought-over budget, Ramos says the city has “done all that they can.”
The double-edged sword of neighborhood investment
When BRT was first proposed for this area fifteen years ago, East Oakland wasn’t facing as much housing pressure. Now, that pressure is very real, and Reverend Buford worries the bus line will accelerate rising costs.
Buford says Allen Temple, the oldest African-American sanctuary in East Oakland, is already a “commuter church.” Many of the members “frankly can't even afford to live in the communities around it now.”
Other BRT projects tend to attract investment in nearby properties. A similar line in Cleveland spurred six billion dollars in economic development in the first six years.
Ramos says it’s almost inevitable that after infrastructure improves, investors come knocking. But he says in the case of Oakland, development is on the way, “whether we want it or not, whether we’ve got BRT or not.”
In that context, Ramos says BRT could slow down gentrification. He says the new bus line could help locals stay, by saving them time and money.
Instead of “turning down public investment because we don't want to exacerbate displacement pressures,” Ramos calls for measures to to protect existing communities, “so that they too can enjoy the improvements that are coming.”
Transform helped win an affordable housing project on the corridor, as well as other building codes that Ramos says will keep prices down.
Reverend Buford says it’s too soon to say what BRT will bring in the long run. He mentions that a group of local artists will decorate the bus stations to reflect the diverse neighborhoods along the route.
But he’s afraid that in several years, their art, along with other local murals, will become a monument to the people who once lived here.
“The people who are going to be enjoying those murals are not the current residents,” says Buford, “but the future population after the current population has been ... removed and displaced.”
Other cities will be watching what happens in East Oakland. In San Francisco, plans for two new bus rapid transit lines are in the works.