Despite numerous misgivings, Mountain View city leaders on Tuesday threw their support behind a controversial Santa Clara County proposal to dedicate lanes on El Camino Real solely for bus traffic.
In a 3-2 vote, council members Ken Rosenberg, Pat Showalter and Michael Kasperzak endorsed the bus plan, arguing that the long-term vision of a streamlined transportation corridor trumped concerns of potential traffic congestion resulting from the plan.
Two council members were absent for the decision. Mayor John McAlister and Councilman Chris Clark both recused themselves from the decision due to possible conflicts of interest from owning property near El Camino Real.
At a cost of $223 million, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal would enhance bus service by providing an express route running from Palo Alto down to San Jose.
The plan by the Valley Transportation Authority calls for two lanes of El Camino Real one in each direction to be closed off to all motorists except buses, emergency vehicles and possibly private company shuttles, VTA officials said on Tuesday.
Cities along the thoroughfare have reacted with some trepidation and skepticism to the VTA proposal. Other cities, including Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and Los Altos, have already expressed opposition to the plan.
In fact, Mountain View city leaders had also previously come out against BRT, making the reversal on Tuesday night all the more surprising. Showalter and Rosenberg both made clear they had opposed dedicating bus lanes during their election campaigns last year, but they described having a change of heart after learning more about the merits of the proposal.
"Since then, I've changed my mind, and that's not a politically popular thing to do, but ultimately I think it's the right thing to do," Rosenberg said. "By saying no, we're saying we promote car culture. We're saying we want more cars."
He framed the issue as a matter of future planning, pointing out that the bus project also would include initial infrastructure for an eventual light-rail extension.
Mountain View officials were already preparing to focus housing along the El Camino corridor, so it made sense to push for a mass transit option there, he said.
But the system would work only if VTA implemented it entirely, Rosenberg said. He emphasized it would be "stupid" if VTA installed dedicated lanes only along the short El Camino stretch through Mountain View.
Showalter also had mixed feelings about the plan, describing it as "crazy" in concept to have two road lanes empty for a bus to travel on every 10 minutes. She was heartened to hear that VTA would consider allowing other vehicles to use the lanes, possibly speeding up emergency service in town.
"I didn't think there was a political will (before). Since that time, I've been approached by a number of people, and I now feel differently about it," Showalter said. "Everyone who rides the bus thinks this is a great idea. And everyone I know who doesn't ride the bus ... thinks it's a horrible idea.
Based on his colleagues' arguments, Kasperzak said he was persuaded to support the dedicated lanes. He expressed some doubts that ridership would increase as dramatically as VTA was projecting. However, Kasperzak said, he was sympathetic to many public speakers who framed the bus project as a "social justice" issue for low-income riders in need of transportation options.
"Mountain View's been pretty bold lately; I think it's time to be bold again," he said.
Numerous speakers criticized the plan for exclusive bus lanes, arguing that removing one-third of El Camino Real would cause a logjam for other traffic and push drivers onto other crowded streets.
Mountain View staff also raised suspicions over the VTA finding that the plan would cause no "significant" traffic impacts. In a letter submitted in January, city staff asked VTA for more information on its data packaged in an environmental impact report. The transit agency never responded to the letter, according to city officials.
Explaining that they used a top-of-the-line computer model, VTA Planning and Program Director John Ristow presented a series of graphs and maps to show how drivers would detour when facing a slower commute.
Of about 2,200 cars on El Camino during a typical evening rush-hour, about 133 motorists would change practice and begin riding the bus, he said. Another 870 drivers would still brave the trip in their cars, but they would take other routes.
He showed a series of diagrams listing relatively small increases on surrounding roadways, such as one extra vehicle per lane on Highway 280 every four minutes.
"The good news is we have such a rich network of roadways that can accommodate a diversion of traffic," Ristow said. "It's a fairly modest and minor amount of traffic diversion."
Some public speakers questioned the impartiality of the VTA computer model and whether it was designed to promote the Bus Rapid Transit project. Ristow pointed out that VTA planned to make the modeling program available to an "independent third party" this summer to assuage those concerns.
Voting against the plan, Councilman Lenny Siegel said he wasn't convinced dedicated bus lanes were the best course of action for Mountain View. He normally counts himself a supporter of mass transit, he said, but he believes this project would ultimately push more drivers onto residential streets.
"You only have one chance to model this and the model doesn't make me confident," he said. "I think cars blocking traffic (are) going to create more (congestion) in the neighborhoods and not solve the problem dedicated lanes (are) supposed to be helping with."
VTA planners also proposed a series of alternatives. To varying degrees, those plans each call for a mix of smaller dedicated lanes and new bus stops located along the curbside or road median.
VTA officials have no obligation to follow cities' recommendations in making their final decision on the bus lanes. Transit officials have indicated their final decision would take into account the cities' input.
Any final decision on changes to El Camino Real would need to be approved by the state agency Caltrans, which has formal authority over the roadway.
The VTA board of directors is expected to make a decision on the BRT project this fall.