A proposal to create bus-only lanes on El Camino Real between Palo Alto and San Jose has hit a political speed bump, with a committee of elected officials from all the Santa Clara County cities along the corridor coming out against the controversial reconfiguration and requesting an analysis of new alternatives.
The El Camino Rapid Transit Policy Advisory Board includes city council members Lenny Seigel from Mountain View and Cory Wolbach from Palo Alto. Chaired by Los Altos Mayor Pro Tem Jeannie Bruins, the group has been meeting monthly with staff from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to offer feedback about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the VTA's proposal to greatly improve bus ridership along the busy artery.
Of the seven options that the VTA has analyzed in its draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), none has faced more scrutiny, criticism and opposition from the committee than the proposal to transform the left lanes of El Camino into bus-only lanes. This alternative, according to the draft environmental analysis, would shrink the time it takes to ride the bus from Palo Alto to San Jose from the current 85 minutes to 48 minutes.
Staff from the VTA and supporters of the dedicated-lanes proposal see this configuration as the most promising way to encourage people to switch from cars to buses.
Other alternatives on the table include "mixed-flow" lanes, in which Bus Rapid Transit shares the right lane with cars, and combinations of mixed-flow and dedicated lanes. The VTA's board of directors is scheduled to make a decision about the alternatives in December or January.
On Wednesday, in a continuation of its Sept. 30 discussion, the advisory board directed VTA staff to explore in its environmental analysis two new alternatives, each with four variations. One alternative would involve a right-lane transit lane; another would focus on curbside transit lanes. The analysis would involve looking at each alternative with just buses; with buses and private shuttles; with buses and high-occupancy (carpool) lanes; and with buses, private shuttles and high-occupancy lanes, according to a report from John Ristow, the VTA's director of planning and program development.
The board asked staff to return with a contract amendment that could be sent to the VTA board, enabling the additional work.
Siegel is among the leading proponents of studying the option of Rapid Transit lanes that could be shared with emergency vehicles, private buses, local buses and high-occupancy vehicles. He said in an interview that the system would also make more sense if the new BRT stations were integrated with the local bus system so that commuters wouldn't have to run across the street from the standard bus stations (which are near the curb) to the new BRT stations, which would be built in islands near the left lane.
Another option that Siegel said should be considered is having the lane dedicated to buses only during certain times of the day.
"The idea is to not have a virtually empty lane reserved for one or two buses," Siegel said.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor, has been more forceful in his opposition to designating left lanes on El Camino for Bus Rapid Transit. In recent meetings, both with VTA officials and with the Palo Alto City Council, Simitian advocated for the transit agency to complete its first BRT project, in San Jose, before moving on to El Camino. That project, which runs along Santa Clara Street, Alum Rock Avenue, Capitol Avenue and Capitol Expressway, is now facing significant delays after construction was halted in July for a "safety shutdown" relating to utilities, according to the VTA.
The transit agency recently nixed its agreement with its primary contractor, Goodfellow Top Grade Construction, and the project is now slated to be completed in 2017.
Simitian came out swinging Wednesday against creating a dedicated lane near the median and urged like-minded colleagues to send a strong message to the VTA board that the option should not be considered. San Jose Councilman Pierluigi Oliverio agreed and tried to make a motion to eliminate this option, but the rest of the committee agreed that it should remain among the alternatives considered.
Staff from the VTA offered several reasons why the dedicated-lane proposal should be taken seriously, including that it would put the agency in the best position to tap into federal funding for the $243 million project. That's because this alternative has been shown to have the most potential for increasing transit ridership and decreasing the time it takes for a commuter to reach a destination.
Simitian wasn't swayed by this argument, noting that it's very possible for federal funding not to materialize, regardless of what alternative is chosen.
"We can do the best job in the world and there will still be no guarantee to accessing these funds," Simitian said.
He cited his recent experiences in the state Senate with another controversial transit project: high-speed rail. In that project, Simitian said, the state made a $68-billion commitment to the system to access between $3 billion and $3.5 billion for future federal funding.
"I'm just anxious about spending federal dollars that have yet to materialize (and that) we have no guarantee of ever materializing, even if we spend a quarter billion," Simitian said.
Simitian was equally unswayed by the VTA's argument that deteriorating "levels of service" (a measure of performance for roads and intersections) will become a less relevant factor for measuring impact because of revisions currently under way to the California Environmental Quality Act.
Once implemented, new guidelines are expected to focus on things like vehicle-miles traveled and vehicles miles traveled per capita, rather than automobile delay and congestion. Once the change takes place, traffic congestion will no longer be considered a "significant impact" on the environment under state law, according to the VTA.
But Simitian noted that these guidelines have yet to be adopted and, even if they were, it wouldn't change the fact that traffic is getting worse.
"As an everyday matter of common parlance, slower is slower whether you want to call it a 'significant impact on the environment' or not," Simitian said. "It doesn't change the impact there, it simply changes the terminology."
Other members were more measured in their criticism of the dedicated lanes, an alternative known as "4c." While not a single member of committee advocated for this option, many felt it should be included in the analysis. Bruins said she is "not ready to give up the median." And Siegel, while noting that he leans toward the mixed-flow alternative, urged more evaluation before ruling anything out.
County Supervisor Ken Yeager called the curbside-lane proposal the "most doable" one politically. Though the curbside-lane design doesn't carry the degree of benefits of dedicated lanes, Yeager said, he doesn't think median lanes will happen, given the resistance.
Wolbach, however, said that he is not prepared to "completely rule out" a dedicated center lane for BRT, shuttles and carpool lanes. Though he said that Palo Alto is currently not in favor of this alignment, he has many constituents who support it. Wolbach also said he thinks a curbside lane is "probably the best" option.
The committee also agreed on Wednesday with a proposal by Oliverio that the VTA consider smaller-scale pilot projects that could be implemented in the short term and that would require little more than a painted curb.
Oliverio acknowledged that "nothing we do will make everyone happy." He suggested going with a small-scale project that would not require a full environmental analysis.
"I'd rather just move forward and try something," he said.
The committee of council members agreed that a pilot should be considered and directed VTA staff to return at a later meeting with further analysis of what it would take to implement the trial.
While the VTA has yet to determine what it would take to analyze the eight new options, an early estimate from the agency suggests that the additional study would take between one and two years to complete and cost between $1 million and $2 million. Under the current schedule, construction would begin in 2018 and be completed by 2020.
The advisory board is scheduled to approve on Nov. 18 a letter to the VTA board urging the additional work. The board of directors would then consider the request in December. If it approves the contract amendment, VTA would then spend three to four months to conduct a "preliminary analysis" that would determine which alternatives merit a more thorough environmental analysis.
Siegel said in an interview that if the study shows that having transit in the right-lane makes sense, this alternative would prompt significant savings over the dedicated-lane proposal.
"We'd end up saving a lot of money over the rather expensive proposal for changing the medians all the way up and down El Camino," Siegel said. "If we're right, it would save money."