AC Transit may cut bus service in Berkeley to weather financial losses caused by COVID-19

Ridership on AC Transit has dropped 71% during the pandemic, causing millions of dollars in losses. Cuts to service would happen in 2021.

One of the lines AC Transit is considering changing to pare costs is the 51. Photo: Paul Sullivan/Flickr

AC Transit is considering cuts to bus lines in the East Bay as ridership and tax revenues have plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The AC Transit Board of Directors will discuss the cuts at its meeting tonight, while an actual vote on the plan will take place next year.

AC Transit saw a 71% decrease in ridership and a monthly loss of $5 million after it made ridership free of charge to facilitate social distancing, according to a May 27 staff report. The bus service provider also projected that sales tax revenue declines could be as large as $80 million. To help address the losses, AC Transit will consider cutting between 15 to 30% of total services. That could save it from $42.4 million to $84.7 million — greater cuts than those made during the 2008 recession.

The proposed changes would reduce Transbay service and lines that run through the Berkeley and Oakland hills. The 80 line, which runs along Ashby Avenue in South Berkeley, would be eliminated under the plan. As a cost-saving measure, the 51A and 51B — two of the most used lines that usually run, respectively, from Rockridge to Fruitvale and from Rockridge to the Berkeley Marina — would be combined. That way, the frequency could be preserved on the 51 line, but service would be less reliable since the route would be longer.

In the North Berkeley hills, the 67, which runs along Oxford and Spruce streets, would be eliminated under the staff proposal. The 7 line, which runs along Arlington Avenue, and the 65, which runs along Euclid Avenue and Grizzly Peak Blvd toward the Berkeley Lab, could be either eliminated or run with reduced frequency.

Transit cuts could have serious impacts for some

Darrell Owens, a Berkeley-based transit activist and co-founder of East Bay Transit Riders, has raised concerns about the proposed cuts,. He said that although lines in denser areas are being prioritized, the cuts could leave many without a vital mode of transportation. On Twitter, Owens warned that by eliminating the 80 line, seniors could lose a means of traveling from the Ashby BART station to Alta Bates hospital and other medical centers.

“I understand they have to do what they have to do. AC Transit is running a free system because of social distancing and I understand that,” Owens said. “I think that the board of directors needs to work hard to find alternatives.”

Owens says that East Bay Transit Riders will be pushing AC Transit to explore new revenue sources, ranging from parking meter fees on Sundays to reallocating money from police departments.

Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett tweeted back at Owens that “we have time to course correct” as these are just preliminary plans.

Wednesday’s AC Transit board of directors meeting will only feature a discussion on the proposed cuts, and a vote on the reduced service schedule is set to come February 2021. The actual changes would be implemented by the summer of 2021. Until then, the agency’s financial future remains uncertain, as long as the the pandemic continues to hit the agency hard economically.