A proposal to add extra turn lanes onto Shoreline Boulevard to relieve heavy traffic has been mothballed, after the Mountain View City Council agreed to defer the project until more is known about recovering traffic patterns following COVID-19.
The 4-3 decision Tuesday marks a clear difference of opinion between city staff and the majority of the council on what commute traffic and vehicle congestion is going to look like in the coming years. Traffic studies indicate there will be a whole host of problems at the intersection of Shoreline Boulevard and Middlefield Road without the extra left-turn lanes, particularly as the city adds thousands of homes and new offices in North Bayshore.
But for the City Council, the jury is still out on what post-COVID commutes are going to look like, and whether a major shift to telecommuting could render the project unnecessary. Numerous residents have come out in sharp opposition to the left-turn lanes because several large trees would need to be removed or relocated, adding more pressure to kill the project.
"Let's just wait a while and see how things come back," said Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga. "It's really hard for me to say let's do this, take out some trees to put in a second left-turn lane, when we really don't know what traffic patterns are going to look like in five years or 10 years."
Over the last seven years, Mountain View has sought to ease current and future traffic woes on Shoreline Boulevard by heavily revamping the congested corridor, with a focus on getting people out of cars. The plan is to add protected bike lanes as well as a reversible bus lane in the center of the road, which will run from Middlefield Road to Pear Avenue.
One aspect of the project -- adding extra left-turn lanes on Middlefield Road to make more room for cars getting onto Shoreline Boulevard -- has turned into a thorny issue that faced significant opposition. Last month, the city's Parks and Recreation Commission formally opposed the project, arguing that the left-turn lanes would only encourage vehicle travel while reducing the walkability of an important part of the city.
City staffers maintain that the left-turn lanes are an essential part of handling a surge in traffic caused by development in North Bayshore, and that they are part of a larger network of transportation upgrades that will mitigate a spike in vehicles traveling to and from the urbanized area of Mountain View. If the lanes aren't built, it could lead to long vehicle queues that clog up other lanes on Middlefield Road, and could force commuters onto alternative roads like Terra Bella.
The city's own traffic analysis shows that, even with the extra left-turn lanes, the intersection is bound to be clogged with cars as a result of North Bayshore development, meaning the added lanes wouldn't fix the problem of too many cars trying to turn left onto Shoreline Boulevard.
The city later revised the plans and shortened the length of the proposed left-turn pocket, preserving most of the 11 trees originally slated for removal. Three trees would still need to be removed, but could be transplanted elsewhere in the Middlefield Road median.
Even with the more tree-friendly approach, the left-turn lanes still faced steep opposition at the Oct. 26 meeting. Resident Bruce England questioned whether the project was necessary at all, noting that many employees are uninterested in returning to the office, and encouraged the city to take a strong position in the fight against climate change.
"I feel like we need to stop accommodating vehicle travel as though making (driving) easier is a good idea," England said. "I don't think it is."
Councilwoman Alison Hicks, who voted to table the project, said the left-turn lanes were designed prior to COVID and the abrupt shift to remote work ought to be reconsidered. She said the city could work with major employers and see if telecommuting can be used as a tool to mitigate traffic rather than forging ahead with a traffic project based on old data.
"I don't want to design for a worst-case scenario," Hicks said.
Dawn Cameron, the city's public works director, cautioned against being overly optimistic that commute traffic will go away. She noted that Highway 85 is already back to stop-and-go traffic during commute periods, and El Camino Real is returning to its usual traffic backups. Data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission shows that traffic in July 2021 was near 70% of pre-pandemic levels, rising steadily since summer last year. This is despite large office-based employers like Google and Apple holding off on workers returning to the office until 2022.
Though some companies are considering alternate schedules where workers come in on different days of the week, Cameron said there will still be an interest in using all of that available office space in North Bayshore. She said it's likely that employers will simply crank up how many people work in the same office, alternating between who shows up for work each day.
"This opens up opportunities for employers then to add more people to the same office building," Cameron said. "What I see is the same number of daily trips to that office building, it's just spread out over more people."
The council majority voted 4-3 to nix the left-turn lanes on Middlefield Road, specifically calling to defer it for five years and allow the rest of the Shoreline reversible bus lane project to move forward. Councilman Lucas Ramirez, who voted against deferring the project, warned that the majority was essentially gambling that the project will be unnecessary and could come to regret it. Going back and adding left-turn lanes later will cost more, he said, and will have to be constructed at a time when traffic is much worse at the busy intersection.
Mayor Ellen Kamei, also opposed, said the city could face serious cost increases for a project that it will end up having to build anyway. She pointed to the city's proposed public safety building, which is expected to cost $134 million compared to the original $65 million price tag seven years ago.
"I'm concerned that if we do not move forward with the project we will be faced with the difficulties that we saw two weeks ago in terms of the cost of construction only increasing," Kamei said.