The 30-day scoping period for the El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit Project begins on Wednesday, February 6. This kicks off the environmental process and is a pretty big deal for the project. To date, discussion and analysis of the project has been at a generally high level and has focused mainly on city preferences, what makes sense for VTA transit operations, cost and funding options. This discussion has yielded five project alternatives that VTA feels are worth studying in a detailed environmental analysis. The five alternatives are discussed later in this post, but first let’s go over what the environmental process entails and how everyone from the public to elected officials can provide input.
The Environmental Process
The environmental process is a multi-stage process that starts with a Notice of Preparation or public scoping process, where the lead agency (in this case, VTA) seeks input from the public regarding what should be studied in the environmental analysis. The public may provide input by attending a public meeting (dates and times here) and providing oral comments which will be recorded by a court reporter or by sending VTA written comments by mail or email.
The scoping process is followed by the environmental analysis, which takes about 14 months and will study the impacts the project may have on numerous resources and identify mitigations for those impacts. The California Environmental Quality Act requires the lead agency to analyze the project’s impact on aesthetics, air quality, archaeology and historic resources, biological resources, geology and soils, greenhouse gases, hazardous materials, hydrology and water quality, land use and planning, noise, population and housing, public services, recreation, transportation and traffic, and utilities. If citizens feel that other project alternatives or areas of study should be included in the environmental analysis, or if they would like to see a specific issue studied, they should let VTA know during the scoping period.
Once the draft environmental analysis is completed, VTA will select a locally preferred alternative (LPA)—that is, the version of the project that makes the most sense to pursue based on the environmental analysis. Citizens and public agencies will have the opportunity to review the analysis and to comment on its adequacy during public review of the Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Analysis.
When the public review period has ended and the environmental document is certified, the project will move into the next stage, engineering and construction.
The Project Alternatives
First, some background: In 2015, the Santa Clara-Alum Rock BRT Project, which upgrades the portion of the 522 Rapid Bus route from Downtown San Jose to the Eastridge Transit Center to BRT status will begin operating. New BRT vehicles will be put into service that will replace the current fleet of 522 Rapid buses. The new, distinctly styled BRT vehicles will travel the full length of the 522 route, from the Palo Alto Transit Center to the Eastridge Transit Center. So folks using El Camino Real will see BRT vehicles before any BRT infrastructure is installed in the corridor. The BRT vehicles are designed for quick boarding through all doors and fare payment is done at the station, just like light rail.
No Build – One option is always to do nothing at all. For El Camino Real, the no build alternative means that the BRT vehicles, which will start running in 2015, will require fare payment on board west of Downtown San Jose and, as such, will only allow front door boarding. This would not be an improvement in transit service, as the BRT vehicles would need to pull out of the travel lane to the curb to pick up passengers, but would also not cost anything to implement. This alternative would result in the confusing situation of vehicles branded as BRT traveling the entire corridor, but only operating as BRT in the eastern part of the corridor.
All Mixed Flow – This alternative would install curb bulbout stations along El Camino Real and The Alameda at 14 stations between Downtown San Jose and the Palo Alto Transit Center. Bulbout stations extend the curb to the edge of the travel lane, displacing on-street parking at the station area. Iconic, light rail-like stations would be built on the bulbouts. BRT vehicles, operating in the right lane, would stop in the traffic lane to pick up and drop off passengers.
Long Dedicated Lane – This alternative would convert 10.3 miles of travel lanes—one on each side of the street, adjacent to the median—into bus-only lanes between Showers Drive in Mountain View and Lafayette Street in Santa Clara. In areas with bus-only lanes, the BRT stations would be located in the median. Cities would also have the option of installing bicycle lanes in portions of the corridor with bus-only lanes. The segment of El Camino Real between the Palo Alto Transit Center and Showers Drive and the segment from Lafayette Street to Downtown San Jose would operate as mixed flow, with curb bulbout stations and the same number of auto travel lanes as exist today. This option yields the greatest improvement for transit in terms of travel time, ridership and operating cost, but would reduce auto capacity on El Camino Real.
Short Dedicated Lane – This alternative would convert about 3 miles of travel lanes into bus-only lanes and add bicycle lanes between Lawrence Expressway and Lafayette Street in Santa Clara. The segment of El Camino Real between the Palo Alto Transit Center and Lawrence Expressway as well as the segment between Lafayette Street and Downtown San Jose would operate as mixed flow with curb bulbout stations and the same number of travel lanes as exist today.
Short Dedicated Lane, No Build North of Santa Clara – This alternative would convert about 3 miles of travel lanes into bus-only lanes and add bicycle lanes between Lawrence Expressway and Lafayette Street in Santa Clara. The segment of El Camino Real/The Alameda between Lafayette Street and Downtown San Jose would operate as mixed flow with curb bulbouts stations and the same number of travel lanes as exist today. No improvements would be made in Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale, though the BRT vehicles would travel all the way to the Palo Alto Transit Center.