With a final decision just a few months away, a controversial proposal to bring dedicated bus lanes to El Camino Real inched forward on Tuesday, following the release of an independent study on the plan's impacts.
The new third-party review, available here, largely upholds findings by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority that the program known as bus-rapid transit (BRT) would cause only minor traffic disruptions.
With the favorable report in hand, an enthusiastic group of VTA officials dropped a heavy hint that they would recommend that the board of directors approve the full BRT plan stretching from Palo Alto to San Jose later this year.
"It really does look like the best project could be dedicated lanes," said John Ristow, VTA program and planning director, on Tuesday, Sept. 22. "Really, this is the project that stands out, and we want to do the best project for this corridor."
VTA officials have championed dedicated bus lanes on El Camino as a way to streamline mass transit, despite fears that it comes at the expense of other motorists. The plan calls for taking away two of El Camino's six lanes, one in each direction, and restricting them to bus use. The $223-million plan would essentially redraw the layout for El Camino and create 26 new bus stops along the road's median.
Since it was first pitched five years ago, the plan has been a lightning rod, generating more comments and attention than any other current VTA project. Among the hundreds of comments spread across six affected cities, many supporters endorsed the plan as a good step to make public transportation a viable option for more commuters. However, a large and vocal cadre of opponents have complained that VTA was downplaying the plan's side effects. Restricting traffic would worsen an already congested route and send drivers spilling onto side streets, they said.
VTA planners signaled that this traffic nightmare wouldn't happen although there would be significant impacts. A draft environmental impact report published by VTA staff last year noted that there would be unavoidable disruption to traffic at multiple locations. But from reviewing 240 intersections in the vicinity, transit engineers projected that thousands of commuters would no longer drive on El Camino if bus-rapid transit were implemented.
In Mountain View, for example, VTA planners estimated that by 2018 more than 1,160 drivers would "divert" from solo driving on El Camino during peak traffic times. In other words, those drivers would find an alternative routes or means of transportation. Just under a quarter of these drivers would shift to mass-transit, the VTA report said. Meanwhile, other North County cities would see even higher diversion rates.
Facing criticism that its traffic projections seemed suspiciously optimistic, VTA officials in March assembled a volunteer steering committee of independent experts to review its data. That committee's report, a 100-page document published on Tuesday, deliberately avoided making a yes-or-no recommendation on bus-rapid transit as a policy decision. Instead, the report focused on the quality of data provided by VTA.
For the most part, the report corroborated the information from VTA, explaining it was in line with similar projects. Stakeholders and political leaders should have enough information and a range of alternatives to make an informed decision, the report noted.
"We feel the document succeeds at these tasks," said David Ory, a principal planner with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and one of the committee members. "There's a reasonable amount of information here for people to make decisions."
In a conference call on Tuesday, a panel of VTA officials celebrated the favorable report as a huge boost. Ristow emphasized that the steering committee had complete independence and its members were unpaid for their service. To help the committee in drafting the report, VTA contracted a traffic-engineering firm Iteris for a cost not to exceed $55,000.
"We're happy with these results. It validates our work in terms of its completeness, its accuracy and the results," Ristow said. "We didn't guide them. They did what they wanted to do in terms of the analysis. We did not get in their way."
The independent committee did point out some areas that VTA could improve on. The group noted that the diversion rates reported by VTA seemed high and not in line with similar projects, but the committee did not question their accuracy. VTA staff considered traffic diversion in a "conservative" fashion, which isn't out of the ordinary for an EIR, the report noted.
The independent panel noted that its members struggled at times to understand the VTA traffic model and how it projected ridership and traffic patterns. The report urged transit officials to clarify its system. For their part, VTA staff members pledged they would work harder in the coming months to better explain the complex data.
Even with the favorable report, it remains to be seen whether the BRT plan wins any new friends. Earlier this year, a split Mountain View City Council endorsed the full plan for dedicated bus lanes and in the process, spurring a fierce backlash and threats to recall council members who voted in support. Most other cities have avoided making a firm decision. At a recent BRT advisory meeting, many local representatives urged VTA to consider alternatives, such as a mixed-flow configuration that would modify El Camino's curbs to expedite bus loading and offloading.
VTA officials emphasize that local input from regional leaders is vital, but they also point out that the final decision will be made solely by the agency's board of directors. VTA staff is expected to bring the plan to the full board for a decision in December.