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Plan for dedicated El Camino bus lanes fizzles out

Unpopular Bus Rapid Transit project called off after $10.5M in preliminary work

After years of spinning its wheels, the controversial proposal to build dedicated bus lanes along El Camino Real appears to be dead in the water.

Originally proposed more than a decade ago, the $223 million project known as Bus Rapid Transit has languished in recent years amid pushback from residents and many elected leaders. Valley Transportation Authority officials say they are now pulling the plug on the idea after gaining insufficient support from cities along the El Camino corridor, even for a scaled-down version to test out the idea.

"It just wasn't being well-received," said Brandi Childress, VTA spokeswoman. "We were having a really difficult time getting consensus on this corridor for taking a lane of traffic."

In the end, studies and engineering for the Bus Rapid Transit project have cost a total of $10.5 million, Childress said. Even though the project is now shelved, that money wasn't wasted, she said. The studies and analysis of traffic patterns could still be useful for future improvements along El Camino, she said.

The original idea for Bus Rapid Transit called for an elaborate series of new bus stops and infrastructure that would dedicate two of El Camino's six traffic lanes primarily for bus traffic. Once completed, the project would have streamlined bus service, potentially making it a viable transit option for more commuters.

Overall travel time for a ride from Palo Alto down to San Jose would have been reduced by about 40 minutes, according to VTA studies.

The same VTA studies predicted that regular traffic along El Camino would experience no significant disruption despite losing two traffic lanes. Many observers found that claim hard to believe.

As the dedicated bus lane project moved forward in 2015, it drew fierce resistance. Many residents warned the project would divert traffic into their neighborhoods. Those opponents cried betrayal after a thin majority of the Mountain View City Council came out in support of the idea. In the days following, critics launched an effort to recall the council's supporters, but that backlash eventually lost steam.

While Mountain View was officially on board with the plan, most other cities along the route were not. In Palo Alto, the plan was criticized for its potential to increase traffic on streets parallel to El Camino Real.

VTA officials decided to drastically scale back the plan. They presented plans for a cheaper pilot program that would create dedicated bus lanes only during peak commute hours on El Camino.

But by that point, the project's limited political support had evaporated. No city government along the route endorsed the proposal, and even Mountain View's council came out in opposition.

The final blow for Bus Rapid Transit came last week. Los Altos Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, who chairs the project's advisory committee, wrote to VTA officials that the project was infeasible and should be brought to an end.

The project's demise probably won't be mourned by anyone, said Mountain View Mayor Lenny Siegel, who also sat on the advisory committee.

"The whole idea was weak in the first place, and we couldn't salvage it," he said. "Now we have to look for more imaginative solutions for getting people to work or school."

For Siegel, the challenge now is to convince VTA officials to consider other North County transit improvements, even though Bus Rapid Transit failed. He is now working to build support for an elevated transit system along the Highway 85 corridor. Mountain View city staff is also studying a new automated transit system to connect the North Bayshore area with the city's downtown.

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