In a bid to alleviate congested traffic on one of the Bay Area's busiest highways, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is exploring whether to convert the median along Highway 85 into light rail, bus lanes or another transit-oriented option -- all with the ultimate goal of getting cars off the road.
VTA staff are putting together what's called an "alternatives analysis," set to be released in early or mid-2018, showing the cost and feasibility of a transit system along the Highway 85 median separated entirely from the rest of the general traffic lanes. Whichever option the transit agency's board of directors approves next year, it's expected to be partially or fully paid for with revenue from the Measure B sales tax that voters approved last year.
VTA's SR85 Policy Advisory Board, composed of elected leaders throughout Santa Clara County, has weighed the options for how to ease the miserable commute on Highway 85 since 2015, grappling with a gridlock problem that affects long stretches of the highway during the peak commute hours. A traffic analysis in 2015 found that the highway reaches stop-and-go conditions during the northbound morning commute from Almaden Expressway to De Anza Boulevard. The average speed from Homestead Road to Interstate 280 at 9 a.m. is only 7 mph.
Drivers are plagued by the same problems during the southbound evening commute as well, with similar conditions spanning from the Highway 101 interchange in Mountain View to Fremont Avenue in Sunnyvale, and again from Bascom Avenue in San Jose to Highway 87.
It's no secret that Highway 85 commuters, desperate to avoid the traffic snarl, are spilling out onto surface streets in the North County, said Mountain View City Council member John McAlister, who serves on the policy advisory board. Cars can be seen peeling off from Highway 85 onto Fremont Avenue every morning, heading west, and splintering out to major thoroughfares including Foothill Expressway, El Monte Avenue, San Antonio Road and Springer Road as an alternative way to get to work.
"What I hear from people in the community is that people are tired of the cut-through traffic," McAlister said. "We're seeing a lot of people taking side roads to avoid 85. Grant Road is really slammed in the morning and really slammed in the afternoon."
Measure B language carves out $350 million of tax revenue to alleviate the traffic troubles on Highway 85, and specifically calls on VTA to study a light rail or bus rapid transit option in the analysis, senior transportation planner Adam Burger told the Voice last week. Beyond that, he said, the policy advisory board can include whatever transit option it thinks best fits the highway.
"The study can include any other future technology that is applicable, like autonomous transit solutions," Burger said. "The public has suggested things like subways and gondolas ... and with each one there may be sub-options."
Surveys conducted last month show that of the 2,440 respondents -- a majority of whom live in San Jose and commute north on Highway 85 to get to work -- about two-thirds were solo drivers enduring a long commute each day. Among San Jose residents in particular, more than a quarter reported sitting in traffic for more than an hour each way. The farther people commuted to work, the more likely they were to consider a transit option if it were built along the Highway 85 median.
"Age and home city correlate with an openness to transit and time sensitivity," according to the survey. "Younger respondents and San Jose residents are more open to taking transit and less time-sensitive."
What ought to be built in the median? It depends on whom you ask. Residents who attended three VTA meetings on the future of Highway 85 last month, along with online respondents, were all over the map. Some demanded light rail or a frequent express bus service extending far south to Morgan Hill and Gilroy, while others advocated for more general use lanes to increase Highway 85's overall capacity. Some residents expressed skepticism that light rail could work unless VTA found a way to speed up the service, and said that it would better serve commuters if it emulated Caltrain's Baby Bullet express trains -- which prioritizes a handful of the busiest stations in order to speed up the commute times and offer more frequent service.
Others argued for interim changes to the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which they criticized for being effectively useless and just as bad as the other lanes during the commute hours because it permits hybrid and electric vehicles. McAlister said he agrees, and that there needs to be a realistic incentive for people to carpool.
"We need to get people, even when they have their electric vehicles, out of the HOV lanes because it defeats the purpose," he said.
While the solution may still be up in the air, the overwhelming majority of comments agreed that traffic on Highway 85 is nigh intolerable.
"I avoid 85 like the plague during commute hours," one commenter wrote. "But it's getting ugly as early as 2 (p.m.) so there is almost no avoiding it unless I take surface streets."
"I already carpool, take a corporate shuttle, etc.," wrote another resident. "I do my part. Yet it still takes me more than an hour most days to get home -- and I live around 15 miles door to door from my office. That's crazy."
A tight squeeze
Building a project that spans all 24 miles of Highway 85 is bound to be full of challenges and complications. Over-crossings and pedestrian bridges hang low above the highway, and the unused space in the median -- the linchpin of any major transit option -- narrows from a comfortably wide 46 feet to only 20 feet in the northern segments of the highway, making it far too narrow for light rail or a fully protected bus-way.
Many of the difficulties spring from the fact that Highway 85 was built in two separate eras with different goals in mind, Burger said. The northern portion of the highway spanning from Mountain View to I-280 was completed in the 1960s, whereas the southern segments were completed in the 1990s. Only during the second phase of construction did Santa Clara County have a vision for light rail in the median, he said.
The scope of the problem depends on the transit option. Bus lanes require 24 feet of right of way; light rail, 32 feet; and fully protected bus lanes, 45 feet. That means the chosen option may require widening the median or, if that's impossible, a grade-separated guideway.
"We've got to make this service go all the way up to the north, which would require massive reconstruction. That could be an aerial guideway," Burger said.
The cost of the Highway 85 transit options will far exceed the available funding from Measure B. Early estimates put the cost of light rail at $3.8 billion to build and $595 per hour to operate; bus rapid transit is estimated to cost $1.2 billion to build and $187 dollars per hour to operate.
Burger said those were preliminary estimates for engineering and construction costs and were done long before the alternatives analysis; VTA could cut costs in some areas. But he conceded that the total price tag will be hefty, and VTA staff and the policy advisory board will have to find ways to finance the project.
"We played it safe in the early analysis, but it is a 10-figure cost and that's well beyond what Measure B allocates," he said. "The (board) will have to take a realistic approach to these goals."
What remains up in the air is where the route will terminate. Early assumptions for the project put the northern tip of any Highway 85 transit option at the downtown Mountain View Transit Center, which links VTA services with Caltrain. McAlister said that would be a mistake, given that many commuters coming into Mountain View are headed to the jobs centers north of Highway 101, forcing another transfer that would lengthen commute times and exacerbate traffic conditions on and around Castro Street.
"That's what people are complaining about. With the VTA transit system it takes forever to get somewhere," McAlister said. "We don't want to have a main route that goes into downtown Mountain View, we don't want to have all the shuttles and congestion in downtown."
The city of Mountain View is simultaneously going through a similar process, exploring the possibility of using autonomous transit or a network of aerial vehicles to ferry people from the city's transit center into North Bayshore and the NASA Ames Research Center, circumnavigating the nearly at-capacity conditions on San Antonio Road, Rengstorff Avenue and Shoreline Boulevard. McAlister said he hopes the concurrent studies will land on a similar technology aimed at getting more people out of cars, which, he said, is the only way to reduce congestion.
"We can't be putting cars on the street; we've got to go aerial to get people off the roads," he said.
The policy advisory board is expected to recommend a transit option on Highway 85 to VTA's board of directors late next year.