A controversial proposal to create dedicated bus lanes along El Camino Real gained a major boost Wednesday when a committee of city representatives along the route signaled a willingness to try out the idea as a pilot program.
If approved by the full Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) board in the coming weeks, the test phase of the program known as bus-rapid transit (BRT) would reserve the right lanes of El Camino exclusively for buses, shuttles and high-occupancy vehicles. The trial is being proposed for the full 17-mile stretch running from Palo Alto to San Jose.
The proposal to test the idea was brought Wednesday before the transit agency's BRT Policy Advisory Committee, a group of elected leaders from the six cities along the route as well as Santa Clara County. For months, cities along the route had signaled hesitation over the BRT program and particularly the traffic impacts of shutting down one-third of a major roadway to solo motorists.
But on Wednesday, the committee members agreed they were amenable to trying out the BRT program in a pilot phase that would be cheaper and more flexible than VTA's original $223 million proposal.
Presenting the pilot program, VTA transportation planner Adam Burger explained that the trial would provide the best information to date on how bus ridership and drivers respond to streamlined bus routes. He recommended at least a 3-mile section to test the program, but anything longer would provide better data, he said.
Several committee members asked whether it made more sense for the test to include the entire El Camino stretch. Going that route would provide the best indication of how the program works, and it would keep pressure on all cities to participate.
"Not only should we recommend this entirely, we should commit to go back to our councils (and recommend) that we take part in this pilot," Mountain View Councilman Lenny Siegel said. "This way, cities will have heard that everyone's moving in the same direction."
The pilot program agreed on by the committee would involve repainting portions of El Camino and installing signs to alert drivers of the new rules for dedicated bus lanes. The dedicated lanes would be those farthest right; however, sections of the street could still have bike lanes or parking along the shoulder. Making those modifications would cost about $6 million, VTA staff estimated.
Some safety matters still need to be considered for the plan, Burger said. Drivers trying to make right turns onto or off of El Camino would need to cross the dedicated lanes, and traffic engineers would need to study whether this poses any dangers.
The pilot proposal will now go to the full VTA board of directors for a final decision as soon as February. VTA staff indicated each city along the route would be asked to participate in the pilot program, although the agency doesn't have to get the cities' support. However, Burger explained, local backing would be important as the project goes to Caltrans for approval.
"Caltrans wants concurrence -- they don't want to step in the middle of a disagreement," Burger said. "It's just good government to make sure you have local buy-in from cities."
No matter what happens, implementing the BRT pilot is a long way off. The program would still need to be studied, and VTA staff indicated it could take two years to fully prepare.
More information on the proposed pilot plan can be found on the VTA website.