Like the system now used to collect tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge, license plate cameras would be installed on the three "gateway" roads providing the only vehicle access to the north side of Highway 101 in Mountain View, potentially enforcing a yet-to-be-determined fee on thousands of employees of Google, Intuit, Microsoft and others who choose to commute by car during morning rush hour instead of taking a shuttle or a bike.
"Some of the developers and companies may balk at this, but do you want 10 million cars in there or do you want us to manage this?" said City Council member Mike Kasperzak.
If approved in December as part of a "North Bayshore precise plan," Google and others would not be allowed to build up to 3.4 million square feet of new offices in North Bayshore unless traffic on the three roads is kept under their collective capacity limit of 18,900 trips between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. — the so-called "cap." There are now 13,900 inbound trips during that period on an average workday. Shoreline Boulevard is already over capacity during morning rush hour by 60 car trips, causing regular traffic jams at Highway 101.
Google representatives did balk at the idea, at least as a first resort. Google real estate director John Igoe expressed concern about the unintended consequences of congestion pricing. He and Google transportation planner Jeral Poskey suggested the city try other measures first to manage traffic, including a new Charleston Road underpass to connect the road across Highway 101, and a new Highway 101 off-ramp onto Huff Avenue, possibly allowing better Google bus access.
"Let's do everything we can to improve (streets and intersections), then we can give up and say, that's the trip cap," said Poskey, who is overseeing the development of transportation strategy for Google in Mountain View.
In order to allow office growth and minimize traffic, City Council members have long discussed a hard limit on commuter car trips into North Bayshore. Council members have been inspired by success with such a cap imposed by the city of Palo Alto, which prevents the Stanford campus from expanding unless car trips are kept at 1989 levels. Mayor Chris Clark described congestion pricing as "a really good final tool we would have in our tool belt" to enforce such a cap.
"I personally was thrilled to see the trip cap because we've been talking about this a really long time," said council member Ronit Bryant. "If you have a trip cap, you have a trip cap. Everyone is responsible for it. It actually has teeth."
"I like it, I wouldn't even put it as last resort," said council member Margaret Abe-Koga of congestion pricing. She noted the success of new toll lanes on local highways she saw as a VTA board member. "I used to think it was just for rich people and didn't help poor people, but then I started looking at the data — it actually works" for everyone.
North Bayshore could see major redevelopment at the start of 2015, mostly for Google, allowing as many as 15,000 to 20,000 new employees in the city in the coming years. City Council members want more than half of the area's employees to give up driving to work alone.
North Bayshore employers would be forced to work together to meet the cap as part of a newly created Transit Management Agency if any company wishes to build new office buildings in North Bayshore. Council members said larger companies like Google may end up having to help smaller companies change commuter behavior. Such measures could include charging for parking, paying employees not to drive or encouraging more use of employee shuttles, Caltrain, bicycles and perhaps the building of a ferry terminal at Moffett Field.
Council members John Inks, John McAlister and Jac Siegel opposed moving forward with the traffic plans for North Bayshore, with Siegel expressing concern over the amount of office space in the works.
"I really have this fear that we are going to be one of the most unsuccessful office parks in the Bay Area," Siegel said. "And we haven't talked about the jobs-housing imbalance and its impacts on the city."
Resident Lenny Siegel (no relation to Jac), also opposed congestion pricing as leader of the Campaign for a Balanced Mountain View.
"Instead of developing strategies that punish commuters, the city should ameliorate the North Bayshore jobs-housing imbalance by restricting employment, promoting housing construction, and developing efficient transit," Siegel said in an email.
Advocates of congestion pricing say it has been effective in reducing traffic in Stockholm, London and Singapore, but Jac Siegel said the city was doing something wrong if it was already having to take such big-city measures.
Council candidate Jim Neal and others expressed concern about the potential impacts to small businesses in North Bayshore, where many restaurants and other businesses say they face closure because they can't compete with Google's free cafeterias and other free services.
"The people working at Google are likely the ones with more money," said resident Linda Curtis. "It's not penalizing them as much as people working at small businesses."
Community Development Director Randy Tsuda said there would be ways to focus on commuters to tech companies and to exempt some drivers, such as those who are going to Shoreline Park or who live in North Bayshore's mobile home park. To determine who is who, a license plate reader could be placed inside Shoreline Park, for example, Tsuda said.
The system may also be used to push traffic off an already gridlocked Shoreline Boulevard and onto the less-traveled North Bayshore gateways, Rengstorff Avenue and San Antonio Road. Tsuda suggested that San Antonio Road could be free at first, while the more popular routes would come with a price.
"It doesn't need to be one fee for each gateway," Tsuda told the council. "For some time, it could be potentially free at San Antonio Road. It's all about calibration to achieve your desired goal."
The council's goal is to make solo driver car trips only 45 percent of all commute trips into North Bayshore. The number now stands at 61 percent for Google alone. There would be easier interim goals as the area develops and alternatives to driving are created, Tsuda said.
Resident Bruce Karney expressed concern that parking garages would be built at the edges of North Bayshore, as has been proposed previously, to get around the trip cap. "That would not enhance the neighborhood or North Bayshore or reduce traffic on the highway," he said.
Karney also called on the city to build housing in North Bayshore so fewer Google employees would have to commute.
Tsuda assured council members that there would be numerous conditions and requirements that would likely delay full build out of North Bayshore for years, as many council members are concerned about overwhelming growth. Members watched as it took less than a year for new office proposals to max out the 1.1 million square feet allowed in the city's new general plan for the Whisman area, a cap that was supposed to last until 2030.
"The smarter thing to do is reduce the 3.4 million square feet and increase it as time goes on," Siegel said. "Once it's written and goes in, it becomes pretty much the way it goes."
The 3.4 million square feet proposed for North Bayshore would be in addition to about 2 million square feet of office space recently constructed, under construction or about to start construction in Mountain View. That includes a 1.1 million-square-foot campus Google is ready to build at a portion of NASA Ames within city limits. There is another 1 million square feet proposed for other parts of the city, mostly in the Whisman area, for a total of about 6.4 million square feet potentially coming to Mountain View soon, bringing tens of thousands of more commuters and potential residents to the city with a general plan that makes room for only about 7,000 new homes by 2030.