Plans to massively increase jobs and housing in Mountain View's North Bayshore tech park are contingent on a car-light future, in which thousands of employees walk, bike and take transit to work. But so far, too few workers have been willing to ditch driving.
As it stands, 56% of employees in North Bayshore drive to work solo, well above the area's target of 45%, with little sign of improvement over the last five years. Reaching that target is a critical factor in allowing job and housing growth, which was rezoned to allow up to 9,850 new homes, without causing miserable gridlock in the area.
In seeking to meet that goal and keep traffic at a tolerable level, Mountain View City Council members voted this week on a revised plan that tacks on several new projects aimed at getting people off the road. Among them is a proposal to roll out "congestion pricing," which would charge people a premium for traveling into the tech park.
The idea has been floated seven years ago, meeting with a mixed reaction and seen as a last resort, but council members on June 8 agreed to make it a short-term priority to launch within the next five years. Council members favored congestion pricing -- along with a suite of transit, bike and pedestrian improvements -- over expensive projects that would increase roadway capacity and encourage more driving.
"I don't want to just build more and more freeway entrances to North Bayshore," said Councilwoman Alison Hicks. "I think that goes against what we've been working for."
Travel into North Bayshore, home to the city's major employers including Google, Intuit and Microsoft, is limited to three major roadways. And two of those of those so-called "gateway" roads -- Shoreline Boulevard and Rengstorff Avenue -- are already approaching capacity during peak commute hours. Upcoming office growth in North Bayshore is expected to add over 6,000 more jobs, raising serious concerns about traffic bottlenecks into North Bayshore.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent work-from-home policies by tech companies have done little to assuage the concerns of the city. In a report, city staff wrote that traffic congestion is expected to return to previous levels, and that employers will want to make "productive use" of their full building spaces. Employees will likely be required to show up on certain days to maximize workplace collaboration, and those employees may be reluctant to take transit due to public health concerns.
The blueprint for North Bayshore's future development seeks to solve those problems with a "car-lite" vision for the area, in which those who live and work in the area would take transit, walk or bike to their destination rather than use a car. The plans include a walkable street network, bike infrastructure and "internalized" trips to work, meaning people live and work in North Bayshore and won't have to in and out via Shoreline and Rengstorff.
But a recent study found that it will take more to solve future traffic woes, with a menu of recommended options that includes minimal parking availability and a complete revamp of the Highway 101 and Rengstorff Avenue intersection to boost roadway capacity by 800 vehicles during peak commute hours.
Several council members said they were uneasy with spending tens of millions of dollars just to help more people drive into North Bayshore. Councilwoman Lisa Matichak said the whole point of the redevelopment plans was to encourage workers to get out of cars, and she was concerned that the city was taking action in ways that would increase vehicle traffic.
"I'm not sure I want to do things that increase the ability for more cars to go into and out of North Bayshore," she said.
More palatable was the idea of congestion pricing, which has been used in Europe and Asia for years and is currently being studied by San Francisco and Los Angeles. Congestion pricing comes in many forms, and could charge drivers a toll for crossing into North Bayshore or be based on how many miles are traveled within the area. Creating such a program would require a network of cameras and technology to read license plates and transponders, collecting drivers' personal information that would need to be safeguarded, city officials said.
The idea also raises equity concerns, and whether all drivers should be charged the same fee for coming into or driving within North Bayshore. Existing North Bayshore residents living in the Santiago Villa mobile home park would have difficulty paying a surcharge just for driving around their own neighborhood, said Santiago Villa resident Alex Brown.
"I think there are a lot of people who could not afford to continue driving if congestion pricing did not exempt them, given how much we have have to cross into and out of this district," he said.
Jim Lightbody, a consultant for the city, said there have been a number of proposals about who would be charged and who would be exempted under congestion pricing, but that those details have yet to be determined. He stressed that the city has only done a cursory look at congestion pricing through a feasibility study to determine whether it makes sense to pursue it.
Though city officials suggested that congestion pricing ought to be rolled out within the next 10 years, Councilman Lucas Ramirez proposed that the city bump it up as a five-year priority, ahead of costly roadway projects. Assuming it works, Ramirez said the city could reduce vehicle trips into North Bayshore and would no longer need massive infrastructure upgrades that could incentivize driving.
"What I'm hoping will happen is that that tool proves effective and it will render some of the additional projects that are proposed further out unnecessary," Ramirez said.
The other major concern hanging over the council was who would pay for expensive transportation upgrades. By tacking on more projects, the city is now facing costs of $487 million, most of which still does not have a funding source. Of the $140 million that has been accounted for, about 80% is being paid for by taxpayers through the city's Shoreline Regional Park Community funds. A much smaller 17% is being paid for by the developments themselves through impact fees.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said she was under the assumption that redevelopment in North Bayshore would largely pay for the transportation improvements, and that she was not expecting the city to foot most of the bill.
"I was very disappointed to see what the split is right now, with 80% falling on the city," Abe-Koga said.