After hearing from a dozen supporters on Tuesday night, the Mountain View City Council continued to lean against allowing dedicated bus lanes on El Camino Real.
The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has released an environmental impact report that studied seven alternatives, from no project to dedicated bus lanes running from San Jose to Palo Alto, which would reduce the number of lanes for regular vehicle traffic from three to two in each direction. Another alternative, ending the dedicated lanes at Highway 85 in Mountain View, gained the interest of some council members.
Council members voted 4-0, with John Inks abstaining, to send a letter to the VTA citing a number of concerns about the proposal. Mayor Chris Clark and Vice Mayor John McAlister had to recuse themselves because they own property near El Camino Real.
Council member Margaret Abe-Koga framed it as a "social justice issue" because the dedicated bus rapid transit lanes -- with limited stops and light rail-type stations -- would make it possible for those scraping by in Silicon Valley to commute without a car more easily. But other council members said it isn't worth the inconvenience to drivers, who might find themselves in more of a traffic jam.
Resident and bike advocate Janet Lafleur said the VTA's report showed minimal impacts to drivers, but huge benefits to bus riders.
"When I look at the chart and see the time difference from the different options, it's just very surprising," Lafleur said. "You can potentially go from 70 minutes down to 35 (for a trip) throughout the whole system" with dedicated lanes from Santa Clara to Palo Alto. The cost to drivers is a five-minute delay for the same trip, according the VTA report.
Lafleur said she was concerned about the increasing number of retail workers who can't afford to live in Mountain View and must commute. And Caltrain is already packed during commute hours -- it's at 125 percent capacity, officials noted.
"If you have to spend a lot of money on a car you are never going to get out of being poor," Lafleur said.
Public works director Mike Fuller said the VTA could still pursue the project, given that Caltrans controls El Camino Real, which is a state highway.
"Legally they could probably do a lot of these improvements without our consent," Fuller said. "I've heard them say they are going to listen to the cities and take their concerns into consideration."
The issue seems to have divided older, more established residents -- such as those on the City Council -- against younger residents and employees with different preferences and environmental concerns. Google employee Amanda Siegel was among those who spoke in favor of the dedicated lanes, saying she lives in San Jose and commutes by shuttle or public transportation to her office in Mountain View.
"I do not have a driver's license," she said. "I do take the Google shuttle most of the time. It just goes to and from work. If I want to go somewhere else, if I want to go to downtown to run errands or spend an evening here, it would probably be by public transit. I would like to see Mountain View be a leader in Silicon Valley with going towards a future of there being efficient mass transportation."
She said BRT is good step in that direction.
"If we discourage people from driving and encourage them to take transit, such as by dedicating lanes to buses, that would be a net positive. Rather than questioning it, I would urge you to fully support the designated lanes," she told the council.
The principal concern that council members continued to express was that car traffic would be pushed onto side streets. The highest traffic volume of any portion of El Camino Real is in Mountain View, at 53,000 cars a day where it intersects Bush Street, near Castro Street. City staff raised concern that 900 cars would be diverted from El Camino Real in Mountain View during commute hours. Margaret Abe-Koga, the lone proponent of dedicated lanes on the council, said she shared the council's concerns that the VTA was not responding to the city's long-standing request for more information on what the impacts would be to Mountain View's El Camino Real side streets, such as Church Street.
"They are going to cut down Church Street, they are going to cut down the side streets in our community, this is not the answer," said Bill Cranston, a Monta Loma resident.
It was not mentioned that in September council members supported limiting car traffic along Church Street and Latham Street -- the main side street of concern -- with "vehicle traffic diverters," in-street planters or bollards, meanders, and other techniques to create a bike boulevard, according to the new El Camino Real precise plan.
Council member Ronit Bryant noted that San Mateo County decided against a similar system and questioned whether it was worth the increase in ridership of 4,000 riders a day over the 522 line. Friends of Caltrain leader Adina Levin said that the ridership increase was probably understated.
"This would make taking the bus time-competitive with driving," Levin said. "There's lots of skepticism with the bus" taking a long time and being late.
Other supporters said that dedicated bus lanes along El Camino Real had very wide support and had been supported by county voters in a 2000 sales tax measure, and that dedicated bus lanes have been used with success in other parts of the world.
Council members questioned whether VTA had seriously considered projected development in Mountain View and future traffic. "There seems to be a disconnect," Abe-Koga said. She said it might be more politically feasible to have dedicated lanes only east of Mountain View, where El Camino Real has more capacity, in order to demonstrate its effectiveness before going further.
Among the concerns in the city's official response to the EIR is the possible elimination of 47 large heritage trees and 96 smaller trees from the middle of El Camino Real to make way for the bus lanes. City staff also express concern about the impacts to bicyclists from removing left-turn lanes from El Camino Real, and that the bus lanes would make it harder for bicyclists to cross the street, although some proponents said it would be easier for them to cross fewer lanes of car traffic.
Council member John Inks criticized the VTA for not attending the meeting, but public works director Fuller said city staff didn't allow the VTA to present the project until city staff could get a look at it.
While council members are leaning against dedicated lanes, some were hesitant.
"I don't think we should take a position; we don't have enough information," said council member Mike Kasperzak.
"The next council will decide this -- the VTA will really decide it, probably," said outgoing member Jac Siegel, who opposes the dedicated lanes.