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August/September 2000

Expressly for Commuters

Express BusDino Vournas  
MTC and the region's bus operators are betting that a new generation of sleek, comfortable freeway cruisers will establish a fresh, appealing identity for bus travel, luring road-weary commuters with the promise of first-class accommodations and valuable time savings.

The Regional Express Bus Program got its start over a year ago, when MTC compared an express bus scenario to other highway and transit investments as part of its Bay Area Transportation Blueprint for the 21st Century exercise.

"The principal finding of our Blueprint evaluation was that the fastest growing parts of the Bay Area are best served by a fleet of express buses operating on the region's expanding network of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes," said Chris Brittle, MTC's planning manager. This finding caught the attention of Gov. Gray Davis, who earmarked $40 million in his recently enacted Traffic Congestion Relief Program for the purchase of 100 low-emission buses to provide express service in the Bay Area.

With this seed money in hand, MTC has initiated meetings with the region's transit operators to flesh out the details and ready the formal launch of the Regional Express Bus Program. One clear challenge facing the program is the general scarcity of funds to subsidize ongoing operating costs. "Fortunately, the Traffic Congestion Relief Program also boosts state funding for transit operations," said MTC Deputy Executive Director Steve Heminger.

"We will be working with the region's transit operators to dedicate some of the new operating money to support express bus service. We'll seek out private sector business sponsors as well."

Transit providers are being asked to submit proposals by early next year specifying routes and service plans that could effectively address congestion on key travel corridors. The Commission is encouraging transit agencies to develop coordinated, multioperator services where they are needed.

Such an effort is already under way in the East Bay, where five transit operators -- AC Transit, Central Contra Costa Transit Authority (County Connection), Eastern Contra Costa Transit Authority (Tri Delta Transit), Western Contra Costa Transit Authority (WestCAT) and Livermore/Amador Valley Transit Authority (WHEELS) -- are jointly developing an express bus plan to serve the principal East Bay commute corridors. Prime candidates include the Interstate 680 corridor running from central Contra Costa County through the Tri-Valley area and into Silicon Valley, and the Interstate 80 corridor running south and west from Solano County through the inner East Bay and on to San Francisco.

Meanwhile, San Francisco-bound commuters can get a taste of the future by boarding one of 28 new luxury coaches recently deployed on AC Transit's transbay routes. Painted a distinctive green, the vehicles feature reclining upholstered seats, individual overhead reading lights, air conditioning, electric outlets for portable computers and overhead luggage racks.

If progress on the Regional Express Bus Program meets expectations, an expanded fleet could hit the road sometime in early 2002.
-- Joe Curley