City Council members were hesitant to embrace a VTA proposal Tuesday that would bring dedicated bus lanes to El Camino Real for a system similar to light rail.
The Valley Transportation Authority is set to build a bus rapid transit line that would extend from Palo Alto to San Jose along El Camino Real. In Mountain View, VTA proposes two so-called BRT lanes down the middle of El Camino Real, with two bus stations located on the median, one at Castro Street and one at San Antonio shopping center.
BRT buses would run every 10 minutes, 18 hours a day. The buses would beat car traffic through the use of sensors that give buses priority at traffic lights. To make boarding times quick, tickets would be bought at stations, and at the same flat bus fare, now $2. VTA is set to purchase new diesel hybrid buses for the project, which include tables inside and WiFi Internet service.
VTA officials said Tuesday that having a dedicated lane for the buses in each direction would nearly double daily ridership on the line by 2035 from 12,085 to 22,717, and decrease travel times. But in Mountain View, that would mean reducing El Camino Real's six lanes to four lanes, and council members didn't welcome that idea at the Tuesday, June 21, meeting.
"We don't have the space on El Camino Real that Santa Clara does," said Laura Macias, one of the council's bigger critics of the idea, noting Santa Clara's support for dedicated lanes. "We have to do what fits for us."
Five audience members spoke in support of the dedicated lanes, while one person opposed them because car drivers would resent the exclusive use of two lanes on El Camino Real for buses that travel only every once 10 minutes. Downtown resident Aaron Grossman said he used BRT in Ecuador, where he was surprised how quickly people got on and off, and said it was faster than a taxi. Resident Jarret Mullin said the system would increase property values along the corridor.
The reduction to four lanes could mean calmer traffic on El Camino Real and a more walkable environment along the lines of the Grand Boulevard initiative most council members say they support. But concerns about impacts on traffic appeared to trump those benefits in the minds of most council members.
"I'm a huge fan of BRT, it's good, I've used it in other cities," said Mayor Jac Siegel. "But it's got to fit your area."
It appeared that council members Ronit Bryant and Margaret Abe-Koga may be the idea's only potential supporters, but even Bryant noted that traffic could increase on the downtown street she lives on. A map of streets near El Camino Real showed red to indicate increased traffic, including on Central Expressway, Middlefield Road and Church Street, among others.
"One of those red lines is the street I live on," said Bryant.
Macias wanted to make it clear to VTA officials that she heard opposition from five of seven council members.
"I want to encourage you to stay open minded," VTA planning manager Chris Connolly told the council.
The VTA is expected to return with more data on traffic impacts for another go at persuading the council.
VTA senior planner Steve Fisher assured the council that the VTA would not build the dedicated lanes in Mountain View without the council's consent. Caltrans owns the El Camino Real right of way, and "we have to approach Caltrans with a consensus decision," Fisher said. "If there is conflict, they do nothing."
Connolly said councils in Sunnyvale, Los Altos and Palo Alto had "mixed opinions" about the BRT lanes.
Without dedicated lanes, BRT buses would use regular traffic lanes, VTA staff said, but BRT stations would require special "bulb outs" on the side of the street at Castro Street and San Antonio shopping center.
More room could be made for BRT by removing the 16-foot median on El Camino real, but, as Connolly noted to the council, "your staff really likes that median."
Mountain View also has the opportunity to have VTA pay for bike lanes, which are lacking on El Camino Real, if the BRT lanes are built. On-street parking could also be removed. East of Ortega Avenue, 5.5 percent of El Camino Real is used for parking. West of Ortega, the number is over 50 percent.
VTA staff said a trip from Palo Alto to HP Pavilion on the line would take BRT 52 minutes, while it could take 60 minutes by car and 67 minutes by the current express bus line 522, which would be replaced by BRT.
BRT is also slated for Alum Rock Avenue and Stevens Creek Boulevard. The project will cost between $200 million and $250 million, mostly in Measure A funds.