For the last three years, there have been almost no public updates on the study, and its status has been kept a secret even after it missed completion dates. Officials with VTA and Mountain View have told the Voice they could not previously disclose details because the study was owned by Google.
Now complete and available online, the final version of the transit report reveals that the study was retooled midway. Originally, traffic engineers focused solely on building a light rail extension — expected to cost up to $500 million — but they were later asked to broaden the study to include other alternatives.
VTA planning director Chris Augenstein, who authored the new report, said the study was brought back to the drawing board when it became clear other transit efforts were underway. He pointed to Mountain View's study to build a future automated guideway system.
"We revised our schedule to align our efforts because we wanted the two projects to inform each other," he said. "Google was very interested in things that could be done right away. They wanted to make sure we weren't just looking at things that were 10 years out."
Given that direction, apparently no transportation idea was too far-fetched for consideration. The study's authors examined the merits of electric skateboards, Segways and motorcycles (both with and without sidecars). Various types of aircraft were also examined, such as helicopters, blimps and personal jets. They even considered some outlandish prototypes like flying cars, hover bikes and automated drones.
Most of these aviation technologies were eliminated for being too immature, but the study indicated they could someday be dusted off as feasible transit options.
In the end, the rapidly advancing technology for autonomous vehicles rose to the top as one of the best options in the Google-funded study. No mention was made of the company's own self-driving division — Waymo — but the study did refer to various other firms developing this technology.
The VTA report graded transit options based on price, the ability to move riders and the level of impact on the environment and surroundings. The study authors also wanted a transit system that could be easily linked to current systems and expanded later in the future.
Autonomous vehicles were seen as one of the most promising options in the study. The VTA report pointed out that this technology could soon be adopted for mass transit: a self-driving bus, for example. Alternatively, self-driving cars could be chained into a "platoon" that could operate more like a train. VTA officials studied the possibility of building dedicated lanes on streets for self-driving cars so they could speedily move past traffic congestion. Another option would be to build an elevated track.
Along with autonomous vehicles, the VTA study also plugged dedicated bus lanes and the agency's own light-rail system as qualified options that could satisfy North Bayshore's transit demands.
Any transit systems would need to start at the Bayshore/NASA light rail station and go about 2.5 miles to the center of Google's campus at Shoreline Boulevard and Charleston Road.
Two potential routes were proposed in the study. A dedicated expressway for autonomous vehicles could run west along Highway 101 from the Bayshore/NASA station to Inigo Way, where it would turn into North Bayshore. Alternatively, a route for self-driving cars, buses or light rail could be brought up R.T. Jones Road along the NASA Ames campus. This option would require a new bridge to be built across Stevens Creek.
Going forward, it will be up to Google officials to decide what to do with the new transit report, according to VTA officials.
Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who sits on the VTA board of directors, said he was encouraged by the new study. He hoped it could eventually help forge some kind of public-private partnership to pursue local transit solutions.
"We need to go to the next level. We can't be relying on just widening the highways (and) buses and light rail," he said. "It's going to have to be a confluence of different opportunities to get people out of their cars."
The Mountain View City Council is scheduled to discussed the VTA report at their April 17 meeting, according to city staff. The new VTA report can be viewed at tinyurl.com/VTAnewStudy.
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