Palo Alto officials protest rapid-bus plan | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto officials protest rapid-bus plan

Severe traffic delays, loss of hundreds of parking spaces among city's concerns

A proposal by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to establish dedicated bus lanes and remove more than 250 parking spaces on El Camino Real in Palo Alto is meeting vigorous resistance from city officials, who are questioning the assumptions behind the ambitious plan known as Bus Rapid Transit and calling for the agency to consider alternatives.

VTA is preparing to certify the draft environmental analysis for the project, which aims to increase ridership and make bus trips speedier.

Many details of the plan, which has been in the works for more than five years, remain undecided, as the agency is still evaluating which parts of El Camino should have dedicated bus lanes (and, by extension, fewer car lanes) and which should have a "mixed-flow" configuration in which buses share lanes with cars but pause at bulb-outs and new stations.

The Palo Alto City Council is set to consider Monday the latest iteration and sign off on a letter opposing the proposal to dedicate two of El Camino's six lanes to buses only.

In recent years, the transit agency has shifted gears in considering what Bus Rapid Transit would look like in Palo Alto. In June 2011, VTA assured local officials that the agency was unlikely to cut car lanes on El Camino in Palo Alto.

Steve Fisher, a transportation planner at the VTA, told the council at the time that in Palo Alto, the agency is "not looking too hard at dedicated lanes."

"We don't find the level of travel-time savings compelling enough in Palo Alto because you're getting to the end of the line," Fisher said.

But in the last few months, plans for dedicated bus lanes in Palo Alto have resurfaced. The new Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) includes dedicated lanes as a design option, a fact that has both puzzled and frustrated city officials. It doesn't help that the DEIR makes it clear that this alternative would affect traffic at local intersections to a greater extent than any of the other options in the plan.

In November, VTA officials returned to Palo Alto and made a case for dedicated lanes. John Ristow, director for planning and program development at the VTA, said that such lanes would greatly increase bus ridership in Palo Alto. Currently, the agency averages 2,516 weekday boardings, a number that is expected to go up to 2,851 in 2018 even if the bus plan doesn't launch. With a mixed-flow design, the number would rise to 2,987; with dedicated bus lanes, boardings would total 4,215.

"We really want to improve the transit option for the corridor because of the investments the city is putting in, as well as private developers," Ristow said, alluding to the large number of transit-oriented projects that are either planned for or under construction along El Camino.

In Palo Alto, numerous high-profile developments along the corridor won council approval in recent years. These include College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real, which will include a new grocery store operated by Miki Werness and the offices of Yelp. A few blocks south, a block-long development was approved around Equinox Gym, at 3159 El Camino. The project will include a restaurant, office space and apartments. The council is also set to consider in the coming months the latest proposal for a four-story building at 2755 El Camino Real, on one corner of the chronically congested intersection of El Camino and Page Mill Road.

At the November discussion of the bus project, Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez predicted that traffic "will divert from El Camino to get to parallel streets" and said the proposal "seems really bad for Palo Alto."

Even though the corridor is already expected to see more and more traffic jams in the coming years, the VTA's environmental study suggests that things would get much worse on both El Camino and Alma Street, which runs parallel to El Camino, if the number of car lanes on El Camino is reduced by two.

Without bus-only lanes, cars at El Camino and Page Mill would wait 94 seconds during the morning commute and 117 seconds in the evening commute in 2040. With dedicated lanes, these waits go up by 15 seconds and 27 seconds, respectively.

At Alma and Loma Verde Avenue, the delay after implementation of the bus lanes is expected to be nearly 16 minutes during the morning peak hours in 2040. Without the project, the delay would be more than 11 minutes, according to the VTA's traffic analysis.

In fact, the DEIR notes that traffic problems would remain "significant and unavoidable" at six intersections on the entire El Camino corridor and at 19 related streets, even with road and signal improvements. In Palo Alto, those include the Page Mill intersection and one at Embarcadero Road/Galvez Street and El Camino. The list also includes Showers Drive in Mountain View.

Easing the added congestion would fall to local jurisdictions like Palo Alto, though VTA has promised to fund its "fair share," based on how much traffic its program adds.

In its proposed letter to VTA, the city states that it supports efforts to expand transit service "but only if significant impacts within our city can be effectively mitigated."

The analysis from VTA identifies "significant traffic congestion along the Alma Street corridor and significant increases in delay along the El Camino corridor in the dedicated lane alternative, and yet fails to propose any mitigation measures to resolve these impacts," Palo Alto's letter states.

"This is unacceptable and makes it impossible for members of our community to support what could be a transformational project for our region," the city's letter states. "VTA should give more thought to alternatives and mitigations, and ultimately present a (modified) project that addresses a (revised) purpose and need without significantly and adversely affecting other modes of travel."

In the letter, Palo Alto officials also question many of the DEIR's assumptions about ridership and request that the VTA explore traffic measures such as removal of "pork chop" islands and expanding sidewalk refuge areas for pedestrians at El Camino and Charleston Road; consider El Camino as part of a network of corridors and devise broader solutions; and consider new fixes for intersections that would experience the most congestion.

It called the absence of solutions for Alma "particularly troubling." Even without the project, Alma is expected to have the worst delays, known as "Level F." And with Caltrain planning to run more trains on its newly electrified corridor in 2019, which will affect four intersections in Palo Alto, traffic on the well-used stretch is expected to significantly worsen.

In a report to the council, planning staff also points out that the dedicated lanes would require the removal of 94 trees in Palo Alto, while the mixed-flow option would result in removal of up to 18 trees. Furthermore, the bus-only configuration could result in removal of 256 parking spaces, while the mixed-flow design would result in a loss of only seven spaces.

The VTA is accepting comments on its DEIR until Jan. 15. After that, it will work on the final EIR, with the goal of launching construction in March 2017 and starting the new service in September 2018.

Related content:

Plan for dedicated bus lanes on El Camino Real back on the table

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4 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 10, 2015 at 9:44 pm

This is VTA's big plan? This plan is flawed. As I understand the bus route, it may stop at the Santa Clara San Mateo border. VTA and Sam Trans barely coordinate as it is, so, unless your destination is completely in Santa Clara County along El Camino, it seems to provide a solution to a very poorly defined problem. VTA admits that taking a lane each way on El Camino will cause unwanted traffic problems. Their solution, initially reported in November, was that drivers and their cars would take other routes (Alma and Middlefield) or otherwise magically disappear. This new updated version of the plan still acknowledges unwanted traffic, but this time VTA says it's up to local communities to figure out how to solve a problem they did not create.

Why is it that these public agencies (include Caltrains recent electrification EIR to this list) that can barely manage themselves not only get to write the EIR's for their big projects, they are also the sole evaluators of public comment and criticism which is typically dismissed by that same agency as unavoidable and otherwise, not their problem?

10 people like this
Posted by Future Dweller
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2015 at 3:27 pm

The all suburban all car "paradise" is done, and folks who oppose any and all inconvenience to their car based lifestyle are part of the problem.

Enjoy the Back To the Future style suburban slum that Palo Alto will inevitably become because of your NIMBYism.

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2015 at 5:53 pm

Once again, it is a sorry state of affairs that not even our bus transportation authorities are able to coordinate.

We desperately need one transit authority that oversees all Bay Area transit for the region. They need to coordinate themselves better and they need to stop competing against each other. Complementing transit systems make a lot of sense. What we have now makes little sense.

3 people like this
Posted by Folks
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2015 at 7:15 pm

If we think taking a lane on El Camino away from general use and dedicating it to buses is a bad idea, does that mean we oppose any and all inconvenience to a car-based lifestyle?

You really have to create and attack a straw man quite different from reality in order to pull sentiment toward this plan.

4 people like this
Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Jan 12, 2015 at 7:55 am

Modern Bus Rapid Transit systems are a proven, cost-effective way to move many people efficiently in increasingly dense urban environments. Younger workers do not see buses as anathema the way Boomers and older Americans sometimes do. We should have solid alternatives available for folks who don't wish to add another car to our already congested streets.

The buses already handoff at county borders, SamTrans and VTA exchange at the PA transit center so that is nothing new. VTA should be credited for working to improve transportation within our county.

What would make a difference is if VTA helps fund Caltrain grade separations for Charleston, Meadow and Churchill. This would improve traffic flow on Alma and relieve El Camino. VTA can also help coordinate more trains before and after electrification, further mitigating traffic up and down the Peninsula.

Palo Alto should also investigate the opportunity to improve intersections, including the cycle time for traffic to cross El Camino. For instance why did PA approve building the apartments on the NE corner of Oregon & El Camino so close to the street constraining the turn and through lanes at a curve entering the busiest intersection in the city? Now we will have to eliminate the landscaping there to improve this important intersection. PA has not traditionally been car friendly and now we will have to balance alternatives very carefully.

8 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2015 at 10:41 am

A driver gets delayed by 15 - 27 secs so another 1400 people can travel through the corridor?

The point of VTA is move people, so that's why we support Caltrain, buses and carpool lanes. In fairness, Palo Alto DID just get an extra non-carpool lane AND a 2nd carpool lane on 101, so how about through the bus riders and Caltrain riders a bone too?

6 people like this
Posted by allen Edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 12, 2015 at 11:15 am

As an engineer I would look at the problem this way.

How much faster would the buss ride be times the number of people taking the buss. That gives the man hours saved. Then compare that to the amount of time that drivers would be delayed times the number of drivers. That is the man hour cost.

If the total man hours saved by adding the bus only lane is more than the added man hours of the total delays suffered by the drivers, then do it. If it isn't, then don't.

I would bet dollars to donuts that this proposal would waste 1000 times more man hours than it would save. But I have an open mind. Do the calculation and show me.

2 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:27 pm

Get VTA to pay for the grade separations as mitigation!

3 people like this
Posted by Gridlock: It''s Official
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:27 pm

Last week the recent report on Bay Area gridlock was widely covered and the findings only went to 2013. If it was 65% worse then, what's it now???

(read all about it at the related stories on Google News)

Web Link

OAKLAND -- The Bay Area freeway commute is moving at its slowest pace in over a decade, as an economy that has shifted into overdrive leaves drivers idling on gridlocked roads.

In its first congestion report card in five years, the Bay Area's transportation planning agency said that average congestion -- defined as traffic moving 35 mph or less -- increased 65 percent in the Bay Area from 2009 to 2013.

11 people like this
Posted by Embarrassed
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 12, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Can we stop being such retrogrades in Palo Alto, one of these days?
Against electrified Caltrain...
Against express buses with dedicated lanes...
Against HSR...
Against green bike lanes...
and on and on.

What a backwards looking town we have become. This is very embarrassing.

2 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 12, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Thank you Embarrassed!!! You took the words right out of my mouth. Let's look to the future of public transportation rather than how it will affect "you" only. We need HSR, we need dedicated lanes...the easier it is for people to use these systems, the less traffic on the road which helps us all!

Desperately want the HSR here soon....

4 people like this
Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Jan 12, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Neil Shea is a registered user.

@Allen Edwards,

As an engineer you'd also consider the scalability of your design. Our region is growing in population, jobs and economically. Our roads are heading toward saturation if we do nothing.

You seem to imply your preferred solution is that personal vehicles are better for you now. So all transportation growth should be via personal vehicles?

As an economic matter, congestion costs are not fully borne by those who cause it. If you enter an already congested road you are slowed down but you also slow down everyone else. So there are economic externalities, costs that you don't pay. How would you resolve this, by taxing driving so that you can still get around, or should everyone just have free roads that are super slow? And what happens to our Silicon Valley economy then?

By planning for BRT now people can still get around when the limited roads congest at peak hours. Younger folks are not wedded to personal vehicles, they rather text and work while traveling. Boomers will be retiring in the coming years so they can either drive off-peak or relive their love affair with the automobile from their rural retirement communities.

2 people like this
Posted by jim
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2015 at 4:16 pm

4215 people will travel on buses with dedicated lanes.

PROVE IT!!!!!!!

4 people like this
Posted by Progress??
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Our charming, suburban town is fading away. If we want to live in a relaxing, family oriented town, we will have to leave Palo Alto within 10 years. [Portion removed.] Developers and greed are ruining Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 12, 2015 at 11:01 pm

There's a huge disconnect between "needing" HSR and paying for it to be built and then paying for the annual operating costs. It is a huge tax albatross. It will never come close to breaking even...who is going to get stuck with that bill?

2 people like this
Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Jan 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

Crescent Park Dad,

Off topic on a BRT article but I have to respond. You are making incorrect, uninformed assertions. Many countries have HSR lines and they all cover their operating costs -- some are also paying back the funds used to build them.

When you get a chance to ride one you'll be impressed. WiFi, space to work, space to stretch and walk around, drink/snackbar, several nearby stations rather than a few distant airports, far less need for 'security theater'.

Roads and highways get mostly maintained by sales taxes -- probably you want those to finally pay for themselves too through user fees?

1 person likes this
Posted by Wha?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2015 at 12:21 pm

The days of the car are over. Too many people, old infrastructure, and a new generation that doesn't see the point of a car in an urban environment.
Read these figures, especially for Caltrain, where ridership is way up.
Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 13, 2015 at 12:41 pm

I've ridden HSR in Europe and Japan. All of those lines are heavily subsidized by the government/taxes.

Regardless, the CAHSR financial model has been bankrupt from the start. The model requires private investment, of which there is none and will never materialize. Why? Because private investors don't invest into sure losers.

And yes, I'm in favor of user fees. The Federal gasoline tax should either be increased or converted to a percentage calculation. It has essentially been the same amount for decades....which means it is far less effective given inflation over the last 50 years. And it would be nice if the State wouldn't siphon off the their gas tax revenues to pay for general fund expenditures instead of highways and roads.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jordan
a resident of University South
on Jan 13, 2015 at 4:48 pm

@Wha?, you are right: Too many people, old infrastructure, and a new generation that doesn't see the point of a car in an urban environment.

The day of the car is hardly over, though. The urban environment in question was built around the automobile. The "new" generation might not see the point of using cars, but they are far from being the only generation here. Public transportation, such as it exists in the Bay Area, is impractical for many people. Large portions of the Bay Area are urban sprawl, with a workforce that commutes primarily by automobile. Offer them a realistic alternative and they will use it. Caltrain is one example, but what percentage of commuters both live and work within a short distance of a Caltrain station? What about folks who live in West San Jose and work in Fremont? Or those who live in Milpitas and work in Menlo Park? No Caltrain between those endpoints and using a bus would make the commute far too time consuming.

We live in the Bay Area, not Chicagoland or New York City. It will take a sea change and many years to restructure our region to be more public transit and housing friendly. @Resident is right, we need a centralized regional transit authority. @Embarrassed is right, too. Palo Alto does have a very outdated approach towards public transit (and infrastructure development in general). It is time we became more progressive and less retrograde. Continuing to stick our collective head in the sand will only make our traffic problems worse.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim K
a resident of The Greenhouse
on Jan 14, 2015 at 11:16 am

What's so bad about the existing #522? I take it to Santa Clara every view months and find it very fast and a lot more convenient than using my car. I hope they don't mess that up in the process of trying to fix something. And I've NEVER had trouble finding a seat

1 person likes this
Posted by Frisco disco
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 16, 2015 at 11:48 pm

I am a bicyclist and a Caltrain user and a driver. why not run local train service on caltrain tracks? Schedule it in between the known hourly runs. Or segregate bus riders in one area of one regular Caltrain car that runs during peak time. So that they can only ride to the end of the subsidized limited route for the same price as the BRT or transfer would have cost a rider. unless we implement smart traffic lights BRT will never ever ever work as well as something in a less congested areas such as the orange line in Los Angeles. in fact smart lights should be implemented right now, in the entire region. and as somebody else said all these traffic agencies need to be consolidated into one regional authourity. that way you wouldn't have groups of employees protecting their fiefdoms or competing with every other agency. right now it's too much like the old General Motors with too many divisions. a consolidated regional authourity would have coordinated feeder buses shared spending for example vta could and should subsidize a portion of the Caltrain grade separation that affect VTA service.if New York could do it why can't California? answer: because the passive politically correct crowd here doesn't want to challenge the employee groups.

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2015 at 6:33 am

I have to admit that I have not read the traffic analysis; only what is stated in the article. Did the analysis include the additional time delays(for both the BRT and "regular" traffic) that will be incurred due to increased PED crossings due to the center/median bus stops?

Think about it...every time a bus stops to let off just one passenger, at some point shortly afterwards that passenger is going to stop ECR traffic in order to get to one side of the street or another - guaranteed. Same goes for gaining access to the median.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 17, 2015 at 7:41 am

@CPD -- that might be a zero-sum game. Currently every round-trip rider must cross all of ECR, either coming or going. New scenario would be crossing half of ECR on both coming and going. Traffic signals don't necessarily need to stop both directions of ECR for a ped crossing from/to the median.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2015 at 7:53 am

Let's get this straight.

There will be buses with passengers getting off the bus on the left side some of the time and the right side some of the time.

They will be like the red London buses in San Francisco for tourists. Doors on both sides, some just cut in the side of the body of the bus. How will these buses do in crashes with some of their integrity cut away? And then the overall number of seats on the buses will be less in number and more passengers will have to stand. How will they do in a crash?

Don't like this idea at all.

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 20, 2015 at 7:02 am

The distance commuters do not take ECR. ECR is for locals commuters running errands, dropping kids off at school, and transiting to the commute roads. Most left turn lanes will be eliminated for cars, bikes and pedestrians. Even pedestrians would need to overshoot their destination. It would be more practical to develop dedicated bike lanes and expanded sidewalks on ECR. Dedicated bus lanes would be better on the commuter roads. Bike riders could safely ride their bike to the commuter bus. This idea is insane.

1 person likes this
Posted by Fred Flintstone
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2015 at 9:18 pm

If the VTA operated carriages pulled by horses, it would want horse & carriage-only lanes on El Camino and then on every other street it wishes to dominate. Why? Because when there is no way to drive yourself, you must either stay put or pay for whatever service the VTA provides. It is all about money for the VTA and special interests that would make a fortune building lanes and supplying fancy new buses. Palo Alto might dodge the bullet temporarily but then will be set up for bus-only lanes in the next phase.

Like this comment
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 18, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Has anyone considered that the current proposal would result in a narrowing of El Camino at the same time as Caltrain electrifies its route on the Peninsula? As best I can tell, construction will start in late 2016 and end in 2020. The project is about to go out to bid.

Web Link

Can they at least wait to implement the BRT until after the electrification of Caltrain to see what how the new traffic patterns will be affected?

Like this comment
Posted by Vladimir
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2015 at 12:15 am

It does not matter what folks in Palo Alto want. The Grand Boulevard Initiative contemplates bus-only lanes on El Camino from San Jose to South San Francisco. It has already been decided.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 19, 2015 at 6:51 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The GBI has NO statutory authority to require anything.

"The Grand Boulevard Task Force is a broad federation of interested public and private parties that challenges communities to RETHINK (emphasis added) the corridor's potential for housing and urban development, balancing the need for cars and parking with VIABLE (emphasis added) options for transit, walking and biking."

3 people like this
Posted by Pam
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 23, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Buses are not much used and face a dim future on the Peninsula unless a lane can be reserved just for buses so they get through and cars don't. That is the VTA's plan for self-preservation and advancement. Bus-only lanes will be added in San Mateo County when or after a third lane in each direction is added for a long stretch. First, SamTrans and CalTrans will add a third lane in Menlo Park. You will see.

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