While Caltrain dreams of electrification and California's high-speed rail project slogs ahead through its design process, Santa Clara County officials are pursuing their own solution to Peninsula's future congestion woes: a fleet of speedy, spacious buses ferrying passengers up and down the El Camino Real corridor.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is in the midst of designing what it calls the "Bus Rapid Transit" project -- an initiative that seeks to encourage more commuters to eschew their cars in favor of buses. The new buses have more seating and better lighting than existing VTA buses. They would travel from San Jose to downtown Palo Alto and would whisk passengers 30 percent faster than the local buses currently in operation.
"We want our passengers to differentiate these vehicles from regular buses and identify them with greater frequency and faster service," said Steven Fisher, senior planner with the VTA. "We hope to grow our market share by doing this."
With proposed road changes, including dedicated bus lanes in some cities, VTA officials believe the new buses will achieve travel times within 10 percent of automobiles. The agency is now designing the new system and intends to have it in place in 2016.
The project, which VTA officials presented to the City Council Monday night, would involve major changes along certain segments of El Camino. Some stretches could see their turning lanes and medians altered, while others could lose curbside parking spaces. The system's design would also include new bulbouts and fancy bus stops with wind screens, ticket machines and canopies.
In Palo Alto, the three stations for the new bus service would be located at California Avenue, Arastradero Road and the transit center at University Avenue. Riders would buy tickets at the station and then board the bus from any door.
There would be a total of 16 stations along the proposed route.
The goal is to reduce road congestion and promote El Camino as a pedestrian- and transit-friendly boulevard. But the new line will also force communities to assess their transportation priorities, particularly in cases where a new bus lane could impact bike lanes and parking spots.
Cities, such as Mountain View, that could get new dedicated bus lanes, might see their curbside parking eliminated or their medians and left-turn lanes shortened, according to a report from Palo Alto Traffic Engineer Shahla Yazdy.
In Palo Alto, meanwhile, the buses will likely share space with cars in a "mixed flow" configuration. Lanes would stay the same for the most part, but areas around bus stations would be equipped with sidewalk bulbouts and station platforms leading to the travel lane.
The VTA plans to complete design and environmental analyses for Bus Rapid Transit by summer 2014 and begin operation of the new bus service in 2016.
The proposed plan is consistent with Palo Alto's goals of turning El Camino Real into a more pedestrian friendly and aesthetically pleasing stretch. The City Council was generally sympathetic to the plan, with Greg Schmid calling it a "great, bold proposal." But council members also questioned the VTA's ridership numbers, which are based on housing projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning organization. Council members have consistently questioned the agency's assumption and argued that its projections for Palo Alto are vastly exaggerated.
Councilman Greg Scharff asked if the El Camino route would generate enough passengers to justify the new service. Schmid also wondered what impact the bus stations and bulbouts would have on the city's already congested intersections. Councilman Pat Burt also questioned the bulbouts, which would be designed to have the portion of the sidewalk at the station extend to the road and require cars driving behind the bus to stop and wait until passengers get on and off.
Fisher said the buses would only stop for about 20 seconds at the stops. Passengers would not be able to buy tickets on the buses and would not be required to show a proof of payment upon boarding (a transit officer would be on board, checking for tickets).
Fisher also said the El Camino corridor is already one of the busiest in the system and that the new bus service would constitute a major improvement, even if the regional projections are off.
"The worst possible outcome is that you'll be providing better service to the best transit corridor in Santa Clara County," Fisher said.