Free AC Transit proposal passes council, faces uncertain future

photo of an AC transit bus
Sydney Chang/Staff
Berkeley City Council passed a budget referral Nov. 9 with plans to allocate $500,000 toward fare-free AC Transit. If approved as an amendment to the budget, the referral would help increase ridership, minimize traffic and curb carbon emissions.

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The city of Berkeley took the first steps toward providing fare-free access to Sunday AC Transit bus rides originating in the city — garnering qualified support from many despite facing an uncertain future.

A budget referral passed at City Council’s regular meeting Nov. 9 recommends $500,000 in appropriations toward the program, said City Councilmember Kate Harrison, who authored the proposal. According to Harrison, the one-year pilot would reveal how free fares affect bus ridership and equity and could be expanded in the future.

Although the referral earned approval from the council, with only one member abstaining, it still faces an uphill battle in gaining approval from AC Transit. At issue is the restoration of services cut to low-income neighborhoods in West Berkeley during the pandemic, which Harrison said the funds in the referral are contingent upon.

“This contingency of restoring line 80, would essentially kill the fare free program,” said Jovanka Beckles, who represents Berkeley and other cities on the AC Transit Board of Directors, in an email.

AC Transit supports fare-free pilot programs and has been in discussions with city of Berkeley representatives about the proposal, Beckles noted. Before line 80 was canceled during the pandemic, it was only serving six riders per hour. According to Beckles, line 80 will not be restored because of its low ridership and the prioritization of busier lines that serve low-income communities of color.

Beckles added that the AC Transit board has approved a modification to line 79 that would provide service to the most significant areas served by line 80, including the Ashby BART station, a public tool lending library and Alta Bates Summit Medical Center.

The referral must also make it through the city’s budget and finance committee, the city manager and the City Council again to be approved as an amendment to the budget passed in June, according to City Councilmember Susan Wengraf. Harrison declined to predict whether the referral would ultimately make it into the budget.

Wengraf was the sole council member who abstained from the referral’s vote, largely because she claimed AC Transit offers inadequate service to her district in the Berkeley Hills.

“Whether it’s West Berkeley or northeast Berkeley, it doesn’t really matter,” Wengraf said. “All people need to have access to good public transit.”

Wengraf’s other concerns included the low utility of fare-free Sunday to commuting workers and giving $500,000 to another agency while the city of Berkeley has its own budget issues.

In response to fiscal concerns, People’s Transit Alliance organizer Dori Goldberg noted only a small portion of AC Transit’s budget comes from fares, but providing free transit would reduce fare enforcement costs and provide an economic boost to the area.

Fare-free transit would increase ridership, decrease car traffic and thereby curb carbon emissions, he added.

Despite broad support, key public figures disagreed on how the proposal should be implemented.

East Bay Transit Riders Union Vice Chair Darrell Owens, who originated the idea for the proposal, criticized the council for using funds from the American Rescue Plan instead of the rideshare tax, though he generally commended the referral’s passage. 

At the Nov. 9 meeting, City Councilmember Terry Taplin offered an amendment to the proposal that would instead provide free AC Transit passes to youth, seniors and people with disabilities. While Harrison said Taplin’s proposal could be implemented in the future, she said a universal program should be implemented first.

Free public transportation is, after all, Harrison’s long-term goal. She looks to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — a city to which her parents moved — as a prime example of the benefits of free transit.

“When they got to Pittsburgh, they got on the bus and never got off,” Harrison said of her parents. “That transformation can happen with people throughout the city.”

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @GabeClasson.