For city planning, trying to build a new transit system is about as tough as it gets. It requires years of forethought, vast property acquisition and a small fortune to build. Even more daunting -- there are countless ways it can go wrong: fickle public support, cumbersome regulations or technology that promises far more than it can deliver.
This is the multifaceted challenge that awaits Mountain View as city officials try to bring their vision of a new automated transit system to the next stage. Last week, city staff and consultants delivered a final version of a study into various transit technologies and how they could be adapted for Mountain View's needs. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of tough decisions still ahead, which was abundantly clear as the City Council discussed it.
"We should do whatever we can to help this to gel," said Councilwoman Pat Showalter. "This is going to be very complex from a governance point of view and we're going to need help to make it work."
The city embarked on this $200,000 transit study in early 2017 with the idea of finding a new automated system that could speedily bring about 8,500 daily passengers from the downtown transit center to the North Bayshore office park and possibly other locations.
The city's consultant team eventually selected two technologies that they believed could best serve this role. This included autonomous transit, a system that would operate similar to self-driving vehicles but on a dedicated roadway. Alternatively, the consultants also suggested the city should look into so-called "group-rapid transit," an automated system that would run on some kind of guideway and transport about two dozen people at a time.
Yet, picking the right technology for the job was like trying to hit a moving target, explained project manager Jim Lightbody. He estimated there were as many as 100 different autonomous transit projects underway across the globe, many of which were testing out new technologies.
"No one knows for sure, but many believe the technology for automated transit is going to be viable within five years or less," he said. "The technology is moving ahead rapidly."
What was less clear, he reported, was the regulatory status for a self-running transit system. The Federal Transit Administration is beginning a five-year research program to draft new regulations for automated systems, but it could be a full decade before those rules are in place, he said. Similarly, city staff reported that issues such as liability and safety certifications for this technology are also still up in the air.
As the council reviewed the final transit study, city staff were ready to pitch the next step -- another study. This "Phase 2" study would examine possible routes, stations and system specifications. It would also lay out the right-of-way corridors needed as well as how the city would pay for it. The study could cost as much as $1 million, and city staffers said they would look for funding partners to help foot that bill.
One obvious benefactor would be Google, which has already invested about $1 million in a similar study with the Valley Transportation Authority to study bringing light rail to North Bayshore. That study, initiated in 2015, is nearly complete, said Assistant Public Works Director Dawn Cameron. Her team had reviewed a draft version of the study, and the conclusion was that light rail would be prohibitively expensive, she said. Coincidentally, the Google study was "leaving the door open" to newer transit systems like autonomous shuttles, she said.
Some council members pondered whether other sections of the VTA light rail line might be repurposed for an upgraded transit line. VTA officials say their study commissioned with Google should be publicly available next month.
"The reality is that light rail ridership is dropping quite rapidly," said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. "Perhaps light rail is a thing of the past. Could this be a right of way for our system?"
Mayor Lenny Siegel said the city needed to make a multi-pronged effort to advance the transit system. As a new round of studies begins, the city should be attempting to reach out to more community groups and seeking private partners.
"I don't want us to spend a couple years on writing a report to come up with the technology, and then try to figure out how to partner and build it," he said. "I want us to meet with residents and employers and be ready when we (can) to go ahead and do it."
In a 7-0 vote, the council accepted the report and directed city staff to begin plans for the second phase of the study.