In 2011, after months of analysis, VTA identified an optimal project for BRT on El Camino Real. The optimal project balanced transit benefit with cost, project impacts and the likelihood of receiving federal funding. The optimal project would have installed BRT infrastructure between Palo Alto and Downtown San Jose—including the conversion of 10.3 miles of the two median travel lanes into dedicated BRT lanes between Showers Drive in Mountain View and Lafayette Street in Santa Clara. The portions of the corridor west of Showers Drive and east of Lafayette Street would not have dedicated lanes and BRT vehicles would operate in the travel lane with cars.
In the spring of 2012, VTA asked city councils to take an official action on the optimal project. San Jose and Santa Clara endorsed the project. Sunnyvale rejected it and Mountain View and Los Altos have indicated opposition—all three cities indicated a preference for a street configuration where the BRT vehicles operate in the right lane with cars.
Without the possibility of dedicated lanes in Sunnyvale and likely not in Mountain View or Los Altos, it became clear that the optimal project was not politically feasible and that VTA should pursue other BRT options on El Camino Real that are compatible with the cities’ visions for the corridor. This brings up several questions:
- At some point, having a minimal amount of dedicated lanes (about three miles in Santa Clara out of 17 miles total) makes the project not that different from current service. Is it worth the cost or would it be better to put the project on hold until political support for more miles of dedicated BRT lanes arises?
- It’s always nice to spend other people’s money, but the fewer miles of dedicated BRT lanes the project has, the less likely it is to receive federal funding. If the entire project has to be funded with local Measure A funds, is it worth it? Would those funds be better spent on other transit projects like BART, light rail and other BRT routes?
- Santa Clara and San Jose developed plans for transit-oriented corridors and acted on those plans by endorsing the optimal project. Should their progressive actions go unrecognized due to the decisions made by their western neighbors?
- Would building a mixed-flow configuration in Mountain View, Los Altos and Sunnyvale preclude future development of dedicated lanes?
- Should the project only be built in Santa Clara and San Jose with no changes in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Sunnyvale? This would mean that two methods of fare collection and boarding would exist on the same route—off-board fare collection and all-door boarding east of Halford Ave and slower, on-board fare collection and single-door boarding west of Halford Ave. Would that be too confusing?
After analyzing the remaining project possibilities, the BRT Project Team has come to support a revised project that installs dedicated BRT lanes in Santa Clara between Halford Ave and Lafayette Street and mixed-flow infrastructure between Palo Alto and Sunnyvale as well as in San Jose. While the transit improvement will not be as great as the optimal project, the revised project would have many virtues:
- It would be a good transit improvement along VTA’s highest ridership route that is politically feasible and could be in operation as early as 2017.
- It would construct the longest segment of dedicated BRT lanes in Santa Clara County.
- It would bring the western portion of the 522 corridor up to BRT status (the portion east of Downtown San Jose will be operational in August of 2014).
- It would recognize Santa Clara and San Jose’s commitment to planning for transit.
- It is projected to travel faster, increase ridership and cost less to operate, which would decrease VTA’s operating costs.
- Fewer dedicated lanes means a lower project cost. The optimal project was projected to cost $240 million. The revised project could be about half that.
- Recent changes in federal funding structures separate majority dedicated lane BRT projects from other BRT projects, potentially making the revised project more competitive than it would have been just last month.
- If Mountain View, Los Altos and Sunnyvale change their mind about wanting dedicated lanes after seeing them in action in Santa Clara, dedicated lanes could be built incrementally with a minimal sunk cost as curbside stations could be relocated to medians.
To be clear, the revised project described above is a staff recommendation. The decision about which BRT project—if any—VTA will pursue through environmental study and the Caltrans review process will be made by VTA’s Board of Directors in the coming months. A Board of Directors Workshop to discuss the BRT program is scheduled for September 21. Members of the public are welcome to provide questions and comments at the Board Workshop. As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to contribute in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.