Council skeptical of El Camino bus project metrics and merits

Town Crier File Photo
The Los Altos City Council sent a message to the Valley Transportation Authority voicing its concerns about bus lanes on El Camino Real.

With the El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit Project on schedule for 2018 construction, the Los Altos City Council is concerned local input may be left at the curb.

“It just feels like this bus is running down the street here, and we’re trying to catch it and have some influence on what might happen,” said Mayor Jan Pepper at the March 10 council meeting. “And it doesn’t really feel like that’s going to happen.”

Following a presentation from a representative of the project’s lead agency – the Valley Transportation Authority – the council voted unanimously against supporting the proposals because of insufficient information, though a formal vote was not required.

“I think this sends a stronger message, that we are on the record saying we are against it until they explain to us what’s going to happen and convince us that it’s not going to be a disaster,” Councilman Jean Mordo said.

The project

The El Camino Real BRT Project would traverse 17.6 miles from Palo Alto to San Jose and provide “fast, frequent, reliable, terrific transit,” according to John Ristow, VTA’s planning and program development director, who delivered the report and status update.

From seven options, transit improvements have been whittled down to four: leaving operations as is, using a mixed-flow configuration, constructing short dedicated lanes and creating long dedicated lanes. Ristow anticipates that the VTA board will select a preferred alternative this summer.

The mixed-flow configuration involves installing curb bulb-out stations at BRT stops and BRT vehicles operating in the right lane among car traffic. VTA metrics indicate that travel time by bus would be reduced by approximately four minutes.

The dedicated-lane configuration converts two lanes on El Camino Real – one lane in each direction, closest to the median – into BRT lanes that would use median stations. Under this option, the time to travel the entire corridor by bus would decrease from 85.2 minutes to 48 minutes, and ridership would increase from 12,512 to 18,616 per day, the VTA projects.

“When transit goes fast, people ride it,” Ristow said.

Mordo said he was suspicious of the projected estimates, including high ridership and low traffic diversion estimates – a total of 891 throughout the corridor in the peak evening hour.

Ristow said the VTA intends to conduct a peer review, testing and recalibration of the numbers to address the skepticism, which has been a common sentiment among cities along the corridor.

Public response

During public comment, three students from De Anza College in Cupertino spoke in favor of the BRT concept, including a Stevens Creek project that would impact their school.

“There’s so much priority for cars. Not everyone can afford a car,” said Lucia Maldonado, who rode transit from San Jose to address the council. “I want to encourage you to see the potential here. I want to see us start moving toward a sustainable future.”

No residents spoke in opposition to the proposal, though Pepper noted that of 12 letters and emails sent to the council, nine voiced concerns.

The process

The VTA board makes the final decision on the preferred alternative, though Ristow emphasized that the VTA would hold a “high level of regard” for the cities along the corridor. El Camino is a state roadway, so Caltrans must issue an encroachment permit for construction to commence.

Ristow said the project is still in the environmental analysis stage. Public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Report officially closed Jan. 14, and the VTA board is now reviewing feedback – including two letters from Los Altos sent in January.

The letters detailed concerns about the project’s impacts, particularly potential traffic diversion in Los Altos. A Jan. 7 letter from Los Altos city staff listed technical questions and recommendations for the project’s environmental report; a Jan. 14 follow-up letter from Pepper requested a presentation tailored to the impacts on Los Altos, in addition to a means for jurisdictions along El Camino to arrive at a common locally preferred alternative.

As a result, the newly formed El Camino Real Rapid Transit Policy Advisory Board will convene city representatives, including Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, as soon as this month.

In an interview with the Town Crier Friday, Bruins said she hopes to analyze the BRT Project from a regional standpoint while still seeking mitigation for local impacts.

“There’s a request for more information, and this should be a forum where we can gather more information to take back to our communities,” she said. “I think we need to start having a discussion in terms of the timing of it and why we think we’ll have any impact on pulling people out of our cars. Our residents deserve answers to some of our questions.”

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