With plans for a greatly expanded bus service on El Camino Real speeding toward a decision, several cities along the prominent corridor remain skeptical about the most dramatic proposal on the table: the creation of "bus-only" lanes between Palo Alto and San Jose.
To reassure the critics and add credence to its own analysis of what is known as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) on Tuesday released a new independent review that the agency said largely validates the analysis in its draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
The transit agency's analysis concluded that the "dedicated-lanes" proposal would significantly reduce the amount of time it would take for its 522 bus to travel from Palo Alto to San Jose: dropping it from the current level of 85 minutes to 48 minutes. A less extreme alternative known as "mixed flow" -- having the new buses share the right lane with cars -- would drop the travel time to 81 minutes, the analysis found.
The review by a specially appointed steering committee took some issues with the methodology, particularly when it comes to the VTA's traffic-diversion analysis, and the way the information was presented to the public. But by and large, the committee supported the findings of the analysis and concluded that the agency's draft EIR "adequately discloses the project's expected environmental impacts and presents evidence sufficient for the relevant bodies to make an informed recommendation for a preferred alternative as required by relevant regulations."
At a media briefing Tuesday, officials from the VTA, which is implementing the project, touted the committee's review, which they said basically confirms the agency's own analysis and its conclusion that creating dedicated bus-only lanes on El Camino would greatly improve transit without causing the type of traffic havoc many fear.
"We're pleased to know that the analysis is complete and that the board now has a complete, comprehensive and accurate report," said John Ristow, the VTA's director of planning and program development.
The analysis showed that the travel time for cars would only go up from 40 minutes to 43.7 minutes as some drivers switch to other modes of transportation or find new routes to take.
During a media briefing Tuesday morning, Ristow said the agency knew that the dedicated-lanes proposal would get the most attention along the corridor, which is why it commissioned the additional review. The review, he said, "actually validated our work on the project and in terms of its completeness, its accuracy and the results of everything we put in the EIR, with that long extensive analysis."
Even so, the findings are unlikely to calm Peninsula anxieties about reducing driving lanes on El Camino. Ristow said that when it comes to traffic congestion, the BRT project will have a "fairly minor and moderate impact." The region is lucky, he said, in that it has a "very rich, highly connective and very good roadway network," which offers "lots of route choices and lots of capacity."
"What we found is that traffic just disperses so much that there's very little impact on the other roadways," Ristow said.
Yet in Palo Alto, where the main alternative to El Camino is Alma Street, choices for drivers remain scarce. And with Alma already congested during peak commuter hours and with Caltrain service set to increase in the coming years, adding to the traffic jams at grade crossings, the VTA's own analysis paints a dire picture of future traffic levels at several key intersections.
Many would be at a virtual standstill on Alma even without the BRT project, though the reduction of El Camino lanes would undoubtedly make things worse. On one particularly congested intersection, at Alma and Loma Verde Avenue, the waiting time is expected to go up from 155.3 seconds under the "no project" alternative in the morning peak period to 321.5 seconds if the dedicated-lanes proposal is adopted. During the peak evening hours, the delay at this intersection would be 129.7 seconds under the "no build" scenario and 262.2 seconds under the dedicated-lanes proposal, according to the EIR.
At Alma and Kingsley, the delay would go up from a projected level of 65.7 seconds in 2018, if no project is implemented, to 375.5 seconds (six and a quarter minutes) under the dedicated-lanes plan during the peak evening commuting hours, according to the EIR.
Congestion is also slated to become worse on the central intersection of El Camino and Page Mill Road, where the delay would go up from 63.2 seconds in the "no build" scenario to 82.7 seconds under the dedicated-lanes proposal. By contrast, the other design alternatives currently on the table, including the mixed-flow approach, would barely make a dent in intersection delays at El Camino and Page Mill, according to the analysis. In all scenarios not involving dedicated lanes, the intersection delays are expected to be less than 64 seconds.
Ristow said the agency is aware that in Palo Alto the level of connectivity is reduced because of the Stanford University campus just west of El Camino. He also noted that Alma is among the smallest parallel routes along the El Camino corridor. That recognition has done little to placate city officials, which earlier this year submitted a letter noting that the VTA's absence of solutions for fixing the impacts on Alma "particularly troubling."
These concerns notwithstanding, Palo Alto may not have much of a say in the VTA's decision about what the BRT will look like. That decision will be made by the VTA Board of Directors, which is dominated by representatives from the southern part of the county and which, according to Ristow, is expected to take up the project and select an alternative in December or January.
Ristow noted that cities do have some say in the process. The VTA has formed a policy advisory committee that includes local officials from cities throughout the county, including Palo Alto (Councilman Cory Wolbach is the local representative). But that group, as the name suggests, serves only in an advisory role. The ultimate decision about what El Camino will look like in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos will be made by the VTA board, whose 17 members include six representatives from San Jose and none from Palo Alto or Mountain View.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who serves on the policy advisory group, said Monday night that he was concerned about the effect that the VTA's drive toward the bus program might have on the agency's proposed transportation-tax measure in November 2016.
The measure, which involves a half-cent sales tax increase, is expected to raise roughly $6 billion for various transportation improvements, including the completion of BART's extension to San Jose and upgrades to Caltrain. It will, however, require support from two-thirds of the county's voters, including residents of north county.
"My worry is that the continued push for the BRT and dedicated lanes will alienate potential supporters for the transportation tax," Simitian said Monday. "I don't think the VTA staff is as sensitive to that possibility as they could or should be."
Of the four north county cities that lie along El Camino, only Mountain View's City Council voted to support the project. That vote came by a bare majority, with only three members voting for it and two voting against it (two other council members recused themselves from the discussion).
Palo Alto has also been skeptical, given the potential effect of dedicated lanes on lost parking spaces and increased congestion.
In a joint meeting with the Palo Alto City Council on Monday night, Simitian said that he has urged the agency to first complete a separate BRT project, which is currently under way between Santa Clara and Alum Rock, and then see how it works before proceeding to El Camino.
The public, he said, needs to better understand the modeling and data used by the VTA so that it can be assured that the El Camino project does not become a "significant boondoggle."
"I think it would be unwise to push ahead, and I think not only would that be unwise for net result for BRT, I think it has the potential to take $6 billion of congestion relief and shove it aside if you have a group of folks unhappy with VTA's decision-making process," Simitian said.
VTA officials estimate that the dedicate-lane proposal would cost about $233 million. Some of the funding would come from Measure A, a tax that was passed in 2000. The agency also hopes to tap into federal funds through the Small Starts program administered by the Federal Transit Administration.
The VTA board of directors is scheduled to review in December or January the seven alternatives evaluated in the EIR, a list that includes dedicated lanes, a mixed-flow scenarios and several designs that combine the two. The board will then have the option of selecting one of these alternatives or direct staff to evaluate other options.
Ristow said he expects the project to take about three to five years to implement. He noted that VTA has heard "mixed views" from local policy makers about the proposal, as befitting a project that would bring "dramatic change" to the corridor. Some in the north county remain unconvinced. Yet Ristow also observed that some of the very same cities have said that they are "looking for more innovative and new transit ideas for their communities."
"That's exactly what this project does," Ristow said.