Hwy 85 cities review toll-lane alternatives

Courtesy of Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority Silicon Valley Express Lanes Program converts existing carpool lanes to express lanes and includes additional lanes in the median of select portions of the highways.

As the Highway 85 express-lane project moves forward, jurisdictions along the corridor plan to take stock of alternatives.

The Los Altos City Council June 9 supported establishing a working group to explore other options for the corridor.

“I think it is worth it to make sure we uncover every rock and look at all the alternatives to make sure we are doing what’s best for the future,” Mayor Jan Pepper said. “And I think it’s also good for us to be working with the other cities.”

According to the current plan, solo drivers with FasTrak accounts would be able to pay a toll and use the carpool lane on Highway 85. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority project covers Highway 85 from Highway 101 in Mountain View to south San Jose.

Search for project alternatives

Caltrans, the highway’s owner and operator, approved the project’s final environmental document and found no significant impact.

But Cupertino, Saratoga and Los Gatos recently filed separate lawsuits against Caltrans and the VTA for “failing to prepare an adequate environmental impact report” for the proposed Highway 85 project. Los Altos did not formally comment on the environmental document.

In a press release issued by Cupertino, Los Gatos Mayor Marcia Jensen said an environmental report should disclose all potential impacts and explore viable alternatives.

“Development of a collaborative transportation vision for the region is a priority for most of the cities in this area,” Mountain View Mayor John McAlister said in the release. “We want to be sure that we have real solutions that reflect the transportation needs of the cities in this region.”

With its vote June 9, the Los Altos council answered Cupertino’s call for a regional coalition to examine feasible alternatives.

“We need a long-term solution – not Band-Aids – on the 85 corridor that gets people to work through our cities, not inundating our surface streets,” Cupertino Mayor Rod Sinks told the council.

The coalition – comprising city mayors and representatives along the corridor – is working to define a process for engagement and collaboration.

Concurrently, the VTA is considering the formation of a policy advisory board – enabling Highway 85-corridor jurisdictions to voice concerns and offer suggestions directly to the VTA Board of Directors.

Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins – a member of the VTA’s Policy Advisory Committee – called both efforts a “pause.”

“It’s a pause that would allow us to revalidate and/or rethink the plans for the 85 corridor,” she said.

When asked by her colleagues, Bruins said she would prefer working within the VTA structure in the interest of efficient communication. However, she noted, establishing the formal VTA policy advisory board would take several months. For now, councilmembers agreed to join the informal regional coalition.

“I think working together might show there is some unified effort here among the cities,” Pepper said, “and hopefully the (VTA) board would take note of that.”

Current plan for Highway 85

The VTA is in the midst of implementing its Silicon Valley Express Lanes Program, which includes the project on Highway 85.

The project converts approximately 27 miles of existing carpool lanes to express lanes, extending between Highway 101 in Mountain View and Bailey Avenue on Highway 101 in south San Jose. The project also adds a second express lane between Highway 87 and Interstate 280 in the median and converts the existing carpool direct-connector in south San Jose to an express-lane connector.

Establishing express lanes is a tool to manage congestion by using existing capacity in the carpool lanes, according to VTA representative John Ristow, who presented the plan to the Los Altos council June 9. Ristow said the VTA would activate the toll 5-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.

“As demand goes up,” he added, “we may have to change those hours.”

If the project continues on schedule and with adequate funding, the VTA anticipates opening the express lanes late 2018.

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