A controversial plan by Santa Clara County to create dedicated bus lanes on El Camino Real between Palo Alto and San Jose is back on the table, despite strong concerns from local officials that the project will only increase congestion on local streets.
The Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is analyzing the highly controversial "dedicated bus lane" alternative in its environmental analysis for a project it calls "Bus Rapid Transit." The goal of the project is to improve bus service on the 17-mile corridor between downtown Palo Alto and San Jose and get more people to switch from cars to buses.
The decision to study the alternative comes despite a strong preference by Palo Alto for a "mixed-flow curb lane" alternative, in which buses continue to travel in the right lane and bus stops are enhanced with bulb-outs and other amenities. The dedicated-lane option would designate the left lane in each direction solely for buses, leaving two lanes for cars.
In June 2011, VTA officials indicated at a study session that the mixed-flow option is the preferred option in Palo Alto, even as other communities would get dedicated bus lanes. Since then, the city has been corresponding with the VTA and urging the agency to conduct further analysis on the traffic impacts on the mixed-flow option.
On Monday night, the council learned that the more dramatic "dedicated-lane" proposal is once again being considered for nearly the entire El Camino stretch, Palo Alto's reservations notwithstanding. Furthermore, because El Camino Real is a state road, the city may not have the power to prevent the shifting of two central El Camino Real lanes from bus to car use.
The VTA does, however, plan to solicit cities' opinions as to whether they would like to remove parking spots on El Camino Real to create bicycle lanes, John Ristow, the VTA's director of planning and program development, told the council Monday.
The Bus Rapid Transit project, Ristow said, would support the investments made by the city and private developers in the El Camino Real corridor, and would serve as a "catalyst" for the "Grand Boulevard Initiative", a regional effort aimed at transforming the congested artery into a more inviting destination for pedestrians and bicyclists and encouraging people to switch from cars to buses.
"To us, it's really the objective and purpose of project to improve that transit choice and in so doing ... we really want to have a project that provides a terrific travel option that's competitive with the automobile option," Ristow said.
The buses would run people back and forth every 10 minutes and serve local "jobs, schools and entertainments," he said. The VTA projects that its average number of weekday boarding is expected to increase from 12,512 in 2013 to 14,588 in 2018 even without the project. With the mixed-flow option, the ridership would jump to 15,303, while the dedicated-lane option would boost ridership to 18,616. By 2040, the projected ridership for the two design option would jump to 22,228 and 30,336, respectively.
The current plan calls for having four bus stations in Palo Alto: near the University transit center, Embarcadero Road, California Avenue and Arastradero Road. It would cost about $233 million to implement and require an annual operating cost of $12.9 million. The mixed-flow alternative in the entire corridor would cost $91 million to build and would come with an annual operating cost of $21.6 million.
The county is estimating that having dedicated lanes would reduce the time it takes buses to travel from Palo Alto to San Jose from the current level of 85.2 minutes to 48 minutes. The time it takes to travel from the north end of Palo Alto to the south would shrink from 22 minutes to 9.8 minutes, according to VTA's analysis. The time it takes to travel the 17-mile corridor by car is expected to go up from 40 minutes to 43.7 minutes.
Though both the dedicated-lane and the mixed-flow alternative are being evaluated, VTA officials noted in the presentation that "operationally, dedicated lane is superior to mixed flow" and that car-travel speeds would be "minimally affected." Many cars, Ristow noted, would be diverted to other routes, modes and times.
For Palo Alto officials, that's part of the problem. According to Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez, the dedicated-lane proposal would cause many people to switch form El Camino Real to Alma, prompting the service level on Alma to plummet to the level of Service F, the lowest possible level. The impacts are expected to be particularly severe on intersections of Alma with Churchill Avenue, Charleston Road and Meadow Drive.
"Traffic will divert from El Camino to get to parallel streets," Rodriguez said, adding that the proposal seems "really bad for Palo Alto."
"It seems we're much better off with it ending at Showers," Rodriguez added, referring to Showers Drive in Mountain View, where the dedicated-lane alternative was expected to reach its northern terminus under the original proposal. Ristow said staff decided to analyze stretching the dedicated lanes all the way to Embarcadero in response to a suggestion from Mountain View.
The presentation did little to sway Palo Alto council members from their prior position. Councilman Greg Scharff expressed frustration about the fact that VTA staff didn't clearly spell out the different impacts of having dedicated lanes go to Embarcadero and having them stop at Showers. He also noted that it was his understanding, based on prior meetings and correspondence, that the VTA was giving "no serious consideration" to having dedicated bus lanes in Palo Alto. The inadequate information makes it difficult for the council to determine its next actions, which could include forming a committee and gearing up for a legal battle to oppose the county's drive to convert lanes.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who served on the county's Board of Supervisors before rejoining the council in 2012, wondered what influence, if any, the city will have on the final decision, given El Camino's status as a state road. Ristow said the final project will be proposed by the VTA and would require approval from the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
"We are not the governing board," Kniss said. "Regardless of our comments, the decision will be made by Caltrans."
Palo Alto's planning staff plans to draft a letter stating the city's concerns about the project and bring it to the council for approval on Jan. 12, just before the deadline for commenting on the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The deadline for comments on the EIR is Jan. 14.