For more than a decade, Mountain View residents have been hearing about the city's grand, technology-driven transit plans for getting thousands of employees in and out of North Bayshore during commute hours.
The idea has been floating around since 2009 under several names and iterations -- Personal Rapid Transit, pod cars, SkyTran, autonomous shuttles, monorails and gondolas -- all aimed at solving the practical challenge of efficiently moving commuters roughly 3 miles, from the city's downtown transit center to Google, NASA Ames and other major employers.
Despite the decadelong wait and worsening traffic, the project suffered another setback last month. An $850,000 study to figure out the land requirements needed for the future Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) line, originally intended to begin last month, has been pushed back to November. Council members granted the request of city staff who sought a one to two year delay, citing burdensome workloads and a vacancy in the public works department. The study now aims be complete in April 2021.
AGT has a long history of delays and abandonment, and the latest study was nearly quashed last year. In June, the council narrowly approved moving forward with the study, with serious misgivings from council members Margaret Abe-Koga and Lisa Matichak about whether the city was chasing an infeasible transit project. Estimated costs to build an elevated system over surface streets could cost as much as $195 million per mile, raising questions over how the city could cobble together enough transportation funds to pay as much as $1 billion.
Councilman John McAlister, a staunch proponent of AGT and regional transit projects, told the Voice that the delays don't change the fact that there is a growing demand for transit alternatives that could take thousands of vehicles off of city streets. Delays and a lack of clarity on how to pay for AGT notwithstanding, he said he remains optimistic: transit technology is rapidly improving, and employers are ready to work with the city to see the project come to fruition.
"It's going to happen," McAlister said. "We're looking for a public-private partnership with Google because North Bayshore is developing, the transit center is developing. We've already pretty much got a route."
A 2018 study found that a future transit system circulating between downtown Mountain View, NASA Ames and North Bayshore could be immensely popular, with more than 8,600 in daily ridership -- much higher than the more extensive Stanford Marguerite shuttle system to the west, even without taking into account a surge in demand from Shoreline Amphitheatre's concert season.
It would also be a much faster alternative, according to the study, with AGT travel times estimated to be between 7 to 13 minutes from downtown Mountain View to the western side of North Bayshore and 13 to 15 minutes to the eastern side. Employee shuttles that currently ferry people from downtown Mountain View to North Bayshore can take 25 to 30 minutes to reach the same destinations.
Bogging down those selling points were big questions about practicality and funding. At the June meeting, Abe-Koga said there are plenty of more immediate transportation improvements -- including a bike and pedestrian tunnel at Villa Street -- while Matichak argued that $850,000 and a year of staff time was a big ask to study something that may never materialize.
"Transportation is really important, but at some point you need to be realistic about what really might be possible," she said.
McAlister, reflecting back on the 4-3 June vote, said he felt his colleagues let price sensitivity get in the way of fully appreciating the potential of AGT for solving traffic woes, and that building the infrastructure for transit is going to be super expensive, no matter what they do.
"I think some council members don't really understand the full implications of what a good transit system can do," he said.
Under the revised schedule, the city will award the contract for the upcoming AGT study in November this year, said Public Works Director Dawn Cameron. The delay could have a silver lining in the sense that the city can wait for the latest advancements in autonomous transportation technology, she said, which is rapidly evolving. The scope of the current study is focused solely on the necessary right-of-way for the future transit system -- which could end up being elevated, depressed or at-grade -- meaning it can fit whatever cutting-edge technology comes down the pike.
"All the technology is in the vehicles, not the guideway," Cameron said. "Which means the use of the guideway could evolve over time to take advantage of new and smarter transit vehicles."