For tech employees living in Morgan Hill and Gilroy, getting through Santa Clara County's congested highway system to the major employers on the Peninsula can be a daunting task. During peak hours, traveling up Highway 101 and Highway 85 into Mountain View can take as long as two hours.
In an effort to get these mega-commuters off the road, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) launched a new express bus route last month designed to transport employees directly from these South County cities to the busy jobs-heavy center of Mountain View during the worst of the commute. The new bus line, Express Route 185, is part of a larger effort to lessen congestion on Highway 85, which grinds to a halt in Mountain View during the evening commute.
The new route launched last month after VTA circulated a survey to major employers in the North Bayshore area, including Google, Microsoft, and Symantec, asking where employees live and when they tend to drive to work and and back. The resulting Express Route 185 picks up employees in both Gilroy and Morgan Hill, and then makes a non-stop slog along the HOV lanes on Highway 101 and 85 all the way to Middlefield Road in Mountain View. The entire 50-mile trek costs the standard express bus fare of $4 for adults, and is intended to be competitive with the time it takes to make the same lengthy commute by car.
The bus route is in "pilot" mode with a limited schedule compared to similar express bus routes that travel to Palo Alto and Sunnyvale, with only three stops at each station for the morning and evening commutes. Changes to the schedule and locations for stops will be made in order to maximize ridership, according to a VTA staff report.
It's hard to gauge how popular the bus route will be, and there's been no recorded data on early ridership numbers to date, said VTA spokeswoman Linh Hoang. There was no projection on ridership numbers prior to the implementation, but older, more established express bus lines servicing South County residents have ridership numbers of about 200 people in each direction.
The new bus route is also the start of a longer process by VTA to encourage more transit usage on Highway 85. Last year, the transportation agency shifted gears when it abandoned a plan to turn the highway's median into new toll lanes, or "express lanes," and is now pursuing a plan to turn the median into a transit lane. Near term goals include $500 million in various upgrades, including the new lane construction, new express buses and ongoing operating costs of about $50 million. Most of these upgrades will be paid for by the new Measure B sales tax, which voters approved last year.
Looking toward the future, VTA will be developing a plan for Light Rail Transit on Highway 85, which would integrate with the county-wide light rail system. But it's unclear how the agency would pay for such a massive undertaking. Reports from May 2016 estimated that the cost of adding a Light Rail Transit system on Highway 85 would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $3.7 to $3.8 billion. For context, the entire $6 billion in Measure B sales tax revenue only allocates $350 million to Highway 85 upgrades.