In the midst of a global pandemic, a plethora of transit agencies across the nation have been forced to jump into action to ensure public transportation services remain operational while keeping workers and the public safe.
What’s more, in addition to keeping up with procedures to combat COVID-19, many of these agencies have carried on with major transit projects. The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District (AC Transit) in the Bay Area is no exception.
On August 9, 2020, AC Transit opened the East Bay’s first-ever bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Dubbed the Tempo BRT line, the $232 million project creates a 9.5-mile connection between Uptown Oakland and San Leandro’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station with painted bus-only lanes largely along International Boulevard and East 14th Street.
According to Ramakrishna Pochiraju, P.E., Executive Director of Planning & Engineering for AC Transit, planning for the Tempo line began back in 1999 when AC Transit took up a major investment study (MIS) to look at various transit options along several corridors. The MIS identified three transit modes as options: light rail, BRT, and enhanced bus, which is similar to BRT.
“But given the ridership, given the need, bringing the transit component into the land use vision, planning, and policies, BRT won out among those options at the time,” Pochiraju told Traffic & Transit. “The main objective for us is providing better transit, reliable service transit along the corridor, more frequent bus service, high-capacity bus service, more safe and secure facilities, and comfortable facilities for passengers to wait on.”
The International Boulevard/East 14th Street corridor became the focus for AC Transit to improve public transportation services due to the fact that 10% of the agency’s total ridership can be found along this corridor. The area also includes a substantial concentration of ethnic minorities as well as transit-dependent and low-income residents. “There’s a reason why it’s called International Boulevard,” Pochiraju said. “It’s a true representation of a very diverse, culturally rich corridor.” He went on to explain that public libraries, college campuses, over 200 places of worship of various denominations, community parks, auto repair shops, small businesses, retail stores, and restaurants can all be found along the corridor. Additionally, this corridor connects around six to seven BART stations.
Project planning for this particular corridor began in 2002 for AC Transit, which engaged with stakeholders, city councils, and the surrounding communities for project approval. Once the agency received a record of decision (ROD) from the Federal Transit Administration, the design process began in 2012. According to Pochiraju, this phase of the project consisted of meeting with stakeholders, mostly with local businesses regarding parking impacts as a result of the BRT line.
“There was a lot of back and forth with stakeholders and community too on how the stations should look,” Pochiraju said. “And we also engaged a local artist to come up with a design that is integrated in the stations.” The construction phase then began in late 2016. Initially, the team thought that work would be broken up into eight construction phases, but the agency decided to optimize construction with three phases. Work included the $6 million utility relocation projects in the first phase, the $4.5 million parking lots and street improvement project—which included building two new parking lots in the Elmhurst and Fruitvale neighborhoods—in the second phase, and the $108 million infrastructure and station platforms work in the third phase. According to AC Transit, each station features hallmark artwork, new pavement, walkways, and native landscaping. Crews also excavated and installed nearly 10 miles of new curb-to-curb blacktop designed to last as long as 20 years.
The team at AC Transit was working toward the end of construction when the COVID-19 pandemic substantially hit the U.S., prompting widespread shutdowns of businesses, services, and major events across the country. The Tempo BRT project shut down for a few days, but once public health orders were in place and the team went back to work, the project ultimately benefited since other projects were shut down and the contractors were able to mobilize more crew members onto the Tempo project.
When social distancing and shelter-in-place orders were first mandated back in March, AC Transit was tasked with closing off the front of all their buses, which is traditionally where fares are collected. “Because our systems are not set up to recover fare at the back of the bus, we have now been operating since March without any fare recovery,” Robert Lyles, Media Affairs Manager for AC Transit, told Traffic & Transit. “Tempo is actually a significant advancement over our traditional system in that the Tempo system allows for fare payment on the platform.” As AC Transit is waiting for the Tempo fare systems to activate, the agency has decided that in the first 90 days of service, Tempo will operate fare free. This means the ticket vending machines and card readers will activate at the beginning of November.
The Tempo buses have a 38-person standing and 58-person seating capacity. But social distancing orders only allow 16 individuals on an articulated coach at one time. “So while we are operating along one of the East Bay’s most densely congested and populated corridors, the emergency orders prevent us from carrying the full capacity of riders per bus,” Lyles explained.
The Tempo BRT line operating between Oakland and San Leandro today features 46 platforms at 34 stations. The service includes a fleet of 27 five-door 60-ft hybrid technology coaches and 35 new traffic signals that improve bus frequency. In its current operations, the Tempo line is using 18 buses, with nine spare buses on standby in the event that if an operational bus reaches its limited capacity during COVID-19 restrictions and bypasses a platform, a bus on standby can come and pick up waiting passengers. Since its opening in early August, AC Transit has seen the Tempo line serving 7,500 to 8,000 passengers per day under COVID-19 restrictions.
Pochiraju said that due to the success of this BRT project, the agency’s regional transit partners are beginning to identify other corridors for future bus rapid transit projects in the Bay Area.