In his bid for a fourth term on the AC Transit Board of Directors, Oakland attorney Joel Young faces a serious challenger in Berkeley planning commissioner and Democratic Party activist Alfred Twu.
Young is one of two at-large members on the nonpartisan, seven-member board overseeing AC Transit, the state’s third-largest public bus agency. Two of the board’s five single-member geographic wards are also up for election this year, including Ward 3, which includes parts of Oakland, San Leandro, and the city of Alameda.
More on the AC Transit at-large and Ward 3 races
Young and Twu are vying to help shape the future of an agency with a $550 million operating budget and a staff of 2,200 that takes 91,000 passengers each weekday across western Alameda and Contra Costa counties aboard a fleet of 635 buses. Most trips taken on AC Transit are to or from work or school, and more than 2 in 5 riders do not own an automobile.
The agency is facing an uncertain future and difficult challenges. The emergency federal COVID-19 funding that’s been propping up its budget is drying up. Ridership is stuck at 55% of pre-pandemic levels, depressing farebox revenues. And a looming recession threatens to eat into the sales and property taxes that make up the bulk of the agency’s income. A worst-case economic forecast projects a $314 million deficit over the next seven years.
AC Transit is currently aiming to restore service to near pre-pandemic levels, but has been facing driver shortages (common in California), which have caused service reliability to take a hit. And later this year, AC Transit will begin planning a system-wide network redesign that could add or eliminate bus lines and alter schedules significantly. (The future of service along Ashby Avenue and other low-income areas previously served by Line 80 will be closely watched in Berkeley.) AC Transit is also engaged in work transitioning to a zero-emission bus fleet and partnering with the Bay Area’s other 26 transit agencies to begin integrating fares, transfers and wayfinding.
Below is a look at the two candidates, their priorities and where they stand on key issues. We have listed them in alphabetical order.
A housing, climate and transit activist with groups like East Bay for Everyone and the East Bay Transit Riders Union, Twu has often used his art skills to illustrate the effects of public policy on the urban environment. He’s also a designer of board games, including a game called “North Berkeley” that models how different constituencies negotiate contentious civic issues like housing at BART.
The UC Berkeley grad’s priorities, if elected, include improving AC Transit’s reliability and coordinating service with other transit agencies.
Twu does not own a car and said that, since moving to the Bay Area in 2002 for college, he has relied on AC Transit, BART and his bike to get around. He said he believes the AC Transit board has put too much effort into restoring bus service on paper and not nearly enough into making sure there are enough drivers to actually operate those buses.
“I’d rather know that there’s a bus every half hour than have a bus that might show up every 20 minutes, because if it only might show up, I might have to leave even earlier … to get where I’m going on time,” Twu said. “Nobody wants to be late to work, and no one wants to wait to go home.”
Twu took issue with AC Transit’s decision near the start of the pandemic to discontinue Line 80 in Berkeley. The board said service was cut because the line ranked 40th out of 69 routes based on metrics of passengers per hour, low-income riders within a quarter mile and people of color within a quarter mile. But the decision has been criticized by transit activists who’ve argued the decision prioritized wealthy, low-density areas with lower ridership.
Young said he agrees with H.E. Christian Peeples, his board colleague, who has described the decision as a difficult choice and noted in a Berkeleyside opinion piece that “the Ashby corridor continues to be served, within a short walk, by productive and frequent north/south bus service.” Twu said the complete elimination of any bus line should be avoided, even if it means having to cut down an underperforming route’s frequency. “When you get rid of it entirely, that’s when the riders [say], ‘All right, the bus isn’t going to work for me. I’m going to buy a car.’ And now you’ve lost them forever.”
Twu said he agrees with Seamless Bay Area, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group that’s criticized local transit agencies for not working fast enough to unify the Bay Area’s fragmented public transportation network system. Twu said he wants AC Transit to follow in the footsteps of SF’s Muni and Santa Clara’s VTA and stop charging people for transferring from one bus to another in the same system. He said he’d also like the agency to match its bus schedules with those of other agencies to shorten transfer wait times.
Twu has criticized Young for not being on board with the creation of an integrated fare structure for the Bay Area’s transit agencies. Young joined the rest of the AC Transit board (as well as BART, Caltrain and several other transit agencies) in sending a lobbying letter asking state Sen. Josh Becker to strike a provision creating such a fare structure from a bill he had introduced, citing a need to “preserve transit agency board decision-making authority over fare policies.” The bill was amended to remove the provision but died in committee. Young said he’s looking forward to the results of a currently underway regional study into whether integrated fairs bring increased ridership.
Twu said he disagrees with AC Transit’s early October decision to remove the mask mandate that had been in place for more than two years. He said the mandate should stay in place because not everyone has gotten the latest booster. Young said that while a mask mandate should continue to be considered for paratransit, it is not needed across the system given the guidance of health officials; he said improving ventilation on buses is a priority.
Twu said that in transit operations, too much funding is allocated for capital projects — like building a new transit line — and not nearly enough for operating existing lines. He said a growing population will increase tax revenue and help fund expanded service. He also hopes to raise at least $50 million, but “more if feasible,” by building support for a local ballot measure and a state bill to fund operations. “We don’t want to keep just raising sales taxes,” he said. “This has to be a regional, state effort.”
Twu has received endorsements from AC Transit directors Jovanka Beckles and Jean Walsh (whose wards both include parts of Berkeley), BART director Rebecca Saltzman, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Berkeley councilmembers Lori Droste, Sophie Hahn, Kate Harrison, Rashi Kesarwani, Rigel Robinson and Terry Taplin. He’s also been endorsed by Seamless Bay Area, Alameda County Democrats, Cal Berkeley Democrats and the East Bay Transit Riders Union.
Young, an Oakland attorney who grew up in Berkeley and attended UC Berkeley for both undergrad and law school, was appointed to the AC Transit board’s at-large seat in 2009, after it was vacated by Rebecca Kaplan upon her election to the Oakland City Council. Young has been re-elected three times and is currently the vice president of the board.
Young has been running as a steady leader who’s up for the task of navigating AC Transit through a challenging post-pandemic era. In 2016, he chaired AC Transit’s parcel tax extension committee and helped lead the campaign for Measure C1, approved by voters in 2016 to extend a $96 per year parcel tax until 2039, generating roughly $600 million in operating funding.
He said he’s proud of supporting the agency’s climate action plan and raising more than $1 million for the hydrogen fuel cell bus program. And he’s facilitated workshops to help small business owners contract with AC Transit and spearheaded the 2011 Freedom Bus Project commemorating the civil rights movement.
Young said his priorities, if re-elected, include seeing through the AC Transit network redesign and meeting the agency’s goals of transitioning to a zero emission bus fleet by 2040, which he says is important to alleviate the harmful effects of climate change and vehicle emissions on people living in lower-income neighborhoods along major bus routes. “One thing that we’re all looking at as an agency is improving the clean corridors concept and ensuring that we have clean vehicles going through those neighborhoods,” he said.
Young said he sees a need to “reimagine” transbay service to San Francisco to address a lack of demand from riders. Currently, demand for transbay service lags far behind that of AC Transit’s local, East Bay bus network. In fall 2021, peak-only transbay service saw nine passengers per trip on average. In 2019, it served 34 passengers per trip on average.
Young lives and works in walkable downtown Oakland and said he regularly uses AC Transit and BART. “I don’t drive that often,” Young said. “My average gas usage has been $300 a year.”
Young said AC Transit is responding appropriately to its precarious financial situation and that he is committed to keeping fares “low and stable.” “A lot of this is just outside our control,” he said. “A lot of it is just simply based on how well the economy is doing at that point in time and how much riders have returned.”
In 2013, the AC Transit board censured Young for using confidential district legal information to benefit his private law practice in lawsuits against other transit districts. For years he defended his actions, noting that the Oregon State Bar took no action against him, but he has now stopped representing transit workers and acknowledges he made a mistake. Young has received endorsements from AC Transit At-Large Director H. E. Christian Peeples; Ward 3 Director Elsa Ortiz; Ward 4 Director Murphy McCalley; the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 (for bus drivers and mechanics); AFSCME Local 3269; AFSCME Council 57; and IBEW Local 1245 (for electrical workers). The East Bay Times’ editorial board (which refused to endorse Young in 2014 and 2018 due to his censure by the district board) wrote in an endorsement this year that he is “well-informed about the financial challenges ahead and correctly sees the redesign of service as a key to bridging that gap.”