VTA fund freeze not stalling projects - yet

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Heavy traffic along Foothill Expressway in Los Altos is a common sight late weekday afternoons. This photo was taken at the San Antonio Road intersection this month.

A lawsuit holding money from the Measure B transportation bond in escrow continues to wind its way toward appeals court, more than six months after a judge’s initial ruling found the bond measure valid.

The local projects awaiting its funding, however, are largely progressing through preliminary planning phases funded by other sources.

The Valley Transportation Authority’s 30-year, half-cent countywide sales tax aims to improve transit, highways, expressways and transportation options. Voters approved an estimated $6.3 billion in funds for the Santa Clara County transportation projects in 2016 by a margin of 72 percent.

A Saratoga resident filed suit last January to block the measure, arguing that its language was unacceptably vague.

A Superior Court judge sided with the VTA in July, but the case headed to appeal in August, where it remains in a queue. Sales-tax income that has been accruing since last year sits frozen pending that appeal.

“Unfortunately, the status of the lawsuit has not changed since September, and the approximate time frame is six to 12 months for it to be resolved in appeals court,” said Brandi Childress, VTA public affairs manager. “There is not much that can be done with respect to moving the process forward.”

  “We cannot spend one penny of that money – it has to all go into escrow,” explained Jeannie Bruins, the Los Altos City Councilwoman who serves on the VTA Board of Directors. But local projects set to ultimately benefit from those funds are all on planning timelines as long, or longer, than the anticipated appeals process.

Los Altos has already committed $400,000 in design-phase funding to one high-profile project, working with Santa Clara County to amend the traffic that snarls Foothill Expressway between San Antonio Road and El Monte Avenue, and beyond, during the daily commute.

Adding an accessory lane on Foothill between San Antonio and El Monte would allow commuters heading toward Interstate 280 to proceed to their right turn without first merging into other traffic, easing flow for everyone involved.

At El Monte, the intersection’s design also may receive revision to improve safety for pedestrians who currently must traverse multiple crosswalks to cross a single leg of the intersection due to a “pork chop” design. Lanes of traffic on El Monte from Cuesta Drive to Foothill, another notorious chokepoint, also may receive revision.

“There is no impact (on project progress) at this point in time unless we get to a design and we are shovel-ready before the appeals court has ruled,” Bruins said, noting that the two may occur in close conjunction. “I believe the county was trying to do something by the summer.”

Grading Caltrain

The Caltrain grading project set to claim some Measure B funding has not proceeded anywhere close to the point where it will need the resources frozen in escrow. Individual cities are still studying how, and whether, to change their train-track crossings.

Many intersections in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale feature Caltrain crossings “at grade,” where cars, pedestrians and bikes directly traverse the tracks.

“You don’t want the train track to be a roller coaster. There is a coordinating, planning phase that has to take place first,” Bruins explained. “That can be done without Measure B dollars – we have a little bit of latitude.”

The Mountain View City Council and city staff are studying closing car traffic at the Castro Street crossing and installing a pedestrian and bicycle undercrossing.

Roads throughout town

Pothole repair stands as the only project immediately frozen by the Measure B lawsuit. The hundreds of thousands of dollars per year Los Altos anticipated for pavement improvements remain in escrow. The city’s Public Works Department master plan includes contingency plans to maintain roadway conditions, Bruins said, meaning that while the city can’t move ahead aggressively, it also hasn’t been dramatically set back.

State Route 85

Because congestion on State Route 85 causes drivers to pop off onto Los Altos’ surface streets, the city has a vested interest in ongoing projects set to ultimately draw on Measure B money.

An ongoing study initiated by the VTA with pre-Measure B money is looking into adding another lane of traffic, and converting both it and the current HOV lane into express lanes. Other approaches to gridlock on 85 range from dedicated bus lanes to transit additions along the 85 corridor, Bruins said.

Noise abatement on 85 between I-280 and Highway 101 also would affect local households – another upcoming study will test different pavement treatments intended to reduce traffic sounds.

In addition to $350 million earmarked for 85 improvements, Measure B included funding for a substantial BART expansion ($1.5 billion), bicycle and pedestrian programs ($250 million) and other countywide transit and roadway programs.

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