On Friday, September 21st, VTA’s Board of Directors will hold a workshop to discuss VTA’s Bus Rapid Transit Program. It has been a while since the Board has discussed bus rapid transit and for some new members, this will be the first time they have considered the program. As such, the presentation will begin with a discussion about what BRT is and the policies and Board decisions that have guided the program thus far. The final item the Board will consider is how to proceed with the El Camino Real BRT Project. As with all VTA Board of Directors meetings, members of the public are welcome to attend and comment on agenda items. You can download the Board packet here.
As many readers know, VTA’s original proposal for BRT on El Camino Real—called the “optimal project”—ran into political opposition from some cities along the corridor. The optimal project proposed to convert the two median lanes of El Camino Real into bus-only lanes between Showers Drive in Mountain View and Lafayette Street in Santa Clara. In Palo Alto and San Jose, six travel lanes would remain and the BRT vehicle would operate in the right lane with cars.
While San Jose and Santa Clara unanimously approved the optimal project through city council votes, Sunnyvale’s council opposed the idea of converting a travel lane into a bus-only lane by a 4-3 vote. Palo Alto and Los Altos, while not taking official votes, indicated a preference against bus-only lanes in study sessions. Mountain View’s Council took a straw vote 5-2 in favor of mixed flow.
This brings us to the question of how (or if) VTA should proceed with the project. At the Board workshop, the BRT Project team will present four project alternatives—selected by VTA’s general manager—for the El Camino Real BRT Project and will seek guidance from the Board on which project alternative to pursue. We preview each of the alternatives after the jump.
The revised project alternative would install dedicated lanes in Santa Clara and curb bulbout stations in Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and San Jose. This would allow for off-board fare collection and all-door boarding for all 16 stations in the El Camino Real Corridor. Combined with the Santa Clara-Alum Rock BRT Project, which will be operational in 2014, all stations along the 522 route would feature the same fare collection and boarding procedures.
This project is estimated to cost $125 million and is projected to generate 11,198 daily BRT boardings. VTA staff estimate that this project would have a good chance to receive a 50% federal funding match through the Small Starts program, leaving roughly $63 million to be funded by local Measure A funds. This project would also save a projected $2.9 million in operating funds annually compared to a no project alternative.
Santa Clara and San Jose Only Project
The Santa Clara and San Jose Only alternative would build dedicated lanes in Santa Clara and curb bulbout stations in San Jose. No improvements would be made in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Sunnyvale. As such, the BRT vehicles would operate as BRT east of Lawrence Expressway, but would operate like the current 522 Rapid Bus with onboard fare payment and the BRT vehicle pulling over to the curb west of Lawrence Expressway. The reasoning behind this alternative is that settling for a mixed flow street configuration in Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale is not ideal and that VTA should instead wait for city councils that support the optimal project to emerge before investing in those cities.
This project is estimated to cost $75 million and is projected to generate 10,680 daily BRT boardings in 2020. Since this project is merely a segment of an existing transit route and wouldn’t have a better cost per rider ratio than other alternatives, VTA staff estimates that it would have a poor chance of receiving federal funding. As such, the entire $75 million would likely need to be covered with local Measure A funds. This project would save a projected $2.7 million in operating funds annually compared to a no project alternative.
All Mixed Flow Project
This project would install curbside bulbout stations throughout the entire length of the El Camino Real Corridor—even in Santa Clara, where the City Council has voted for dedicated lanes. The argument for this scenario is in a lower overall cost—especially if federal funding is acquired—compared to the Revised Project and Santa Clara and San Jose Only alternatives. A benefit of this project over the Santa Clara and San Jose Only alternative is that it would install enhanced BRT stations throughout the corridor which allows for off-board fare collection and fast, all-door boarding.
The All Mixed Flow Project is estimated to cost $83 million and is projected to generate 9,950 daily BRT boardings in 2020. The low cost makes it more cost-effective than the Santa Clara and San Jose Only alternative and as such, this project is projected to have a good chance to receive federal funding for 50% of the project cost. Due to a lack of dedicated lanes, the BRT vehicles would travel slower which would require more vehicles to maintain a 10-minute headway. As such, the annual operating cost would only be $0.9 million less than the no project alternative.
As the title implies, this course of action would shut down the El Camino Real BRT Project for now. No improvements would be made west of Downtown San Jose and the BRT vehicles, which will start running in 2014, would operate as BRT east of Downtown, but as the 522 Rapid Bus west of Downtown.
There is no capital cost for this scenario, but the annual operating cost is the highest of all four alternatives. Doing nothing is projected to result in 5,748 daily boardings.
The BRT Project team will recommend that the Board of Directors pursue the Revised Project alternative for the following reasons:
- Investment in VTA’s highest ridership corridor – This is consistent with Board adopted policies to direct resources toward VTA’s highest performing routes and would not only lead to increased ridership, but would improve the transit experience of thousands of existing riders.
- Extends BRT west of Downtown San Jose – The El Camino Real corridor is an extension of the Santa Clara-Alum Rock corridor. Having different fare collection and boarding methods on either side of Downtown San Jose is confusing for riders and gives the appearance of a half-complete project.
- Installs dedicated lanes in Santa Clara, creating “showcase project” – A dedicated lane configuration on El Camino Real is a tangible example of BRT that can inspire other jurisdictions to embrace BRT.
- Increases ridership – More riders means less cars which means less greenhouse gas emissions and less traffic congestion
- Decreases operating costs – The point that BRT on El Camino Real is not a new service, but rather an efficiency improvement to an existing service is important. Improving transit efficiency would allow VTA to save a projected $2.9 million annually.
- Most competitive for federal funding – This project will compete with other projects around the country for a limited amount of federal funding. Of the four alternatives, the Revised Project features the highest ridership, lowest operating costs and installs a dedicated lane which improves travel speeds the most which is important for on-time reliability and the rider experience. As such, it would have the greatest likelihood of receiving federal funding
- Creates a consistent brand for BRT on El Camino Real – Unlike the Santa Clara and San Jose Only and No Project alternatives, this would install BRT infrastructure throughout the entire corridor.
All of the work that VTA has done to date—analyzing project alternatives, working with city staff, presenting the project to elected officials and holding community meetings—has led up to the decision that the Board will make at this workshop. Their decision effectively defines the project that will be taken through the Caltrans, federal and environmental review processes. We encourage members of the public to share their opinions with the Board of Directors either in public or through writing. As always, if you have any questions, you can ask the BRT Project Team at email@example.com or post them in the comments.