Taking the initiative, Mountain View is hitting the accelerator on a goal to create a cutting-edge transit system that would zip over the city's traffic jams. At a meeting earlier this month, City Council members agreed to commit $200,000 or more to study a variety of automated transportation systems that could run between the city's downtown transit center and the bustling North Bayshore tech hub.
City officials signaled particular interest in what is known as automated-guideway transit (AGT), a broad term covering driverless systems that move along guideways that usually go above the roadway. By their nature, such systems avoid some of the pricey property acquisition that afflicts many ambitious transportation projects.
At this early stage, council members say they hope to explore a range of opportunities and routes to get a basic idea for how this could work under Mountain View's existing conditions. Along with getting the lay of the land, the council urged city staff to look for private-sector partners, particularly among the cluster of rapidly expanding tech companies that are behind much of the traffic problem.
Councilman Lenny Siegel urged staff to focus on a transit system that runs on electricity and doesn't share the roadway with traffic and only stops at stations. Service on this system should be so frequent that riders wouldn't need to consult a schedule. To start, Siegel said he wanted an initial route to run from the city's downtown transit station to Amphitheater Parkway.
A lead proponent of the effort, Councilman Mike Kasperzak said that the city had a constellation of reasons to rethink local transportation, including that traffic will only get more strained in the coming years. The city has a large slate of new development projects in the pipeline, giving city officials a window for mapping out a new transit route and stations. Politically, Mountain View elected leaders are interested in trying some new ideas, he said.
"What we're asking staff is, 'How do we get the city shovel-ready for a (transit) product that becomes viable?'" Kasperzak said following the meeting. "Now that the city has given staff direction, staff is going to take this seriously."
City officials are banking on the idea that Mountain View will eventually be joined by other partners. Many North Bayshore companies are already participating in a Transportation Management Association, through which they jointly fund a shuttle system for their employees. Council members recommended this group as an obvious partner that could one day manage operations for the transit project.
Other neighboring cities with their own traffic troubles, such as Cupertino or Sunnyvale, may want to cooperate on a larger traffic solution, council members suggested. City officials said they would look for ways to include the Valley Transportation Authority and possibly procure some financial help on the project.
"Whether or not VTA is involved in this system, we have to work with them," said Siegel. "Any funds we seek would have to get their support -- as much as sometimes we'd prefer not to."
Mountain View's interest in creating a new mass transit alternative comes as a number of other large transportation project are already underway. The California High Speed Rail Authority is considering Mountain View's downtown station as its future Midpeninsula stop between San Jose and the San Francisco International Airport. Meanwhile Google, in cooperation with VTA, is funding a $1 million study to extend the light-rail system from Ellis Street through the Moffett Federal Airfield and into North Bayshore.
Kasperzak said that it is still worthwhile for Mountain View to pursue its own transit system. At a price of about $100 million per mile of track, a light-rail extension could be in a tough fight for funding amid a host of other county projects, he said. Meanwhile, an newer system of elevated tracks and automated pod-cars would be easier and cheaper to build, at a cost of about $8 million per mile, he said.
No one mentioned it by name at the meeting last week, but the transit system Mountain View leaders desired seemed to fit the profile for SkyTran, a company based out of the NASA Ames Research Center. SkyTran builds high-speed pod car systems that travel along an overhead electromagnetic rail. Just a few years ago, city officials expressed interest in launching a local pilot project for SkyTran, but they later hesitated after hearing it would cost between $60 million and $130 million.
Council members indicated they would review the transit project in upcoming meeting through the council's Transportation Committee.
At the meeting last week, council members were generally supportive of paying an initial $200,000 for a feasibility study of an automated-guideway transit system. That study will be added to the city's capital-improvement project list for the upcoming fiscal year.
But city leaders were skeptical of an additional $10,000 request to join Urban System Laboratories, a southern California nonprofit that tracks and helps develops large-scale infrastructure projects, according to the city staff report.
Council members say they could not find adequate information about the nonprofit's services or what Mountain View could gain. An initial vote to allocate $10,000 for the membership, which required five votes to pass, ended up failing when Siegel, John Inks and John McAlister all voted in opposition.
A second motion without the Urban System Laboratories membership passed in a 6-1 vote with Inks dissenting.