Elected leaders throughout Santa Clara County rejected last week the idea of constructing a light rail line along Highway 85, calling it an expensive endeavor that would fail to alleviate traffic woes on the congested corridor.
The unanimous vote by city council members that make up Valley Transportation Authority's (VTA) Highway 85 advisory board on July 2 marks the end of a slow-but-sure acknowledgment that light rail is too expensive, too inflexible and too inconvenient to be an attractive alternative for commuters. VTA staff also concluded that the low-density residential suburbs adjacent to long stretches of Highway 85 are not "transit supportive" and cap the effectiveness of any future public transit option.
"I think we would make a good decision by cutting it as one of the options even though, coming in, I was an advocate to do (light rail)," said Rod Sinks, a Cupertino city councilman and advisory board member. "I've been persuaded by compelling evidence that we need a different solution that is more cost-effective for this corridor."
For the last four years, members of the advisory board have been studying ways to fix the hourslong traffic snarls that bog down Highway 85 during morning and afternoon commutes. The focus has been on the wide median of the highway, which could be converted into a transit lane or "express" lanes for high-occupancy vehicles and drivers willing to pay a toll.
The committee, made up of council members from throughout Santa Clara County, decides the scope of what transit options to study, which will come to the full VTA Board of Directors for approval.
While light rail had the support of advisory board members from the outset, the idea fizzled out as VTA staff and outside consultants pointed to a long list of practical and financial challenges that could plague a future rail system. Chief among them, building light rail could cost around $3.8 billion to construct, and only $350 million in funding has been earmarked for improvements on Highway 85.
A light rail system would also prevent any other uses of the median, such as private shuttles, and would have to be a straight shot up the highway without extending outside the corridor and onto city streets to reach more potential riders. An analysis found only 2% of Highway 85 commuters live and work within a short walk of the highway.
The vote to reject light rail came shortly after the release of a scathing Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report that slammed VTA for providing some of the most inefficient transit services in the country. Light rail in particular was criticized for high operating costs and low ridership that continues to decline, leading taxpayers to subsidize more than 92% of the cost to run the service. Members of the grand jury reported finding "virtually no support" among VTA staff for a current proposal to extend light rail to the Eastridge shopping center in San Jose.
Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who chairs the advisory board, told the Voice that the best way to cut down on the endless backup of traffic on Highway 85 is to give solo drivers a better alternative. He pointed to a recent study that found extending light rail into North Bayshore would cost between $400 million and $500 million per mile in construction costs, which is a high price to pay for a system used by fewer than 1% of Santa Clara County residents.
"Light rail is not efficient, it's very slow, ridership is low, and for people to transition from their car into public transportation -- that needs to be something that is fast, efficient and consistent," McAlister said. "If you are sitting on 85, the most that light rail goes is 40 mph, and it would require frequent stops."
McAlister said he remains a big advocate for flexibility. Whatever type of transit lane makes it into the median, he said, VTA needs to have a future-proof plan that can adapt to new technologies. More locally, McAlister was a proponent to study an automated transit system that could shuttle employees from Mountain View's downtown transit center to the city's jobs-heavy North Bayshore area.
Until then, he said, speedy bus services and private shuttles ought to take top priority for a transit lane in Highway 85's median.
"When I asked Google and Apple what they wanted, they said something with minimal transfers that operates at desirable times," McAlister said. "People don't want to have five or 10 stops."
Advisory board member Johnny Khamis, a San Jose council member, said the only viable option for the median is to construct express lanes, which act both as a toll lane for solo drivers and a standard carpool lane. He said committing a lane just for VTA buses would slow down traffic for the sake of infrequent public transit service, and encouraged anyone who felt otherwise to see the "horrible slowdown" caused by bus rapid transit (BRT) along Alum Rock Avenue and Santa Clara Street in San Jose.
"I don't like the idea of BRT because we know that it doesn't work, for sure," Khamis said. "Just come to San Jose and go down Alum Rock."
Private industry is ahead of the curve in solving traffic problems compared with VTA, Khamis said, and the best option may simply be to open up another lane and "let the chips fall where they may." Public transit services can always be added later, he said.
"I would like to see the transit lane be able to be used by public buses, private buses and people who will pay to get out of your way, because it's working everywhere else," he said.
Saratoga council member Howard Miller said any use of the highway median needs to compete with the capacity of a general use lane, which is close to 33,000 daily trips through Saratoga. He pointed to the Eastridge extension as a clear example of what not to do -- killing a lane that can support 20,000 daily vehicles to make room for a light rail service that may only end up carrying 611 new riders.
"We can't put a solution out that carries a few thousand (riders) and say we did a good job," Miller said. "We can't make stupid mistakes on Highway 85 -- we get one shot at making this right."
One of the major challenges outlined in memos and staff reports is that VTA is serving large, low-density areas with transit services, which inevitably makes it harder to run efficient, high-ridership bus and rail routes. Even Mountain View, a jobs-rich area along the corridor, has about 5,700 jobs per square mile, compared with 23,400 in parts of downtown San Jose, according to one memo. And with parking both cheap and plentiful in Mountain View, many commuters are inclined to drive instead.
West Valley cities adjacent to Highway 85 were designed "with the assumption that most trips would be made by private automobile," with street layouts that are purposefully designed to discourage through-traffic and make walking to transit stations both lengthy and indirect, according to a VTA staff report.
"The urban growth decisions made over the past several decades by city planners have created an urban form adjacent to the SR 85 corridor that is automobile-dependent and not transit supportive. Those land uses are not likely to change much in the future," the report states.
The current list of alternatives to be studied for Highway 85 include building express lanes in the median as well as a transit lane running the entire length of the highway. The transit lane would be for use by "high-capacity" vehicles, which means VTA transit and private shuttles and buses. The more ambitious options that have been considered -- and later rejected -- include an elevated guideway, light rail, monorails, subways, gondolas and Hyperloop.
Highway 85 projects will be paid for, at least in part, by the Measure B sales tax passed by voters in 2016. The measure earmarks funding for transportation improvements throughout Santa Clara County, including $350 million in funding for upgrades to Highway 85. The language of the measure specifically asked VTA to study bus rapid transit, light rail and "future transportation technologies."