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City Desk: Feb. 4, 2015

City Desk

Less is More: Doing the Math on Residential Development Fee Credits
By Carolyn Schuk

On Jan. 26, City Council held a three-hour study session that revisited the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system on El Camino, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension to Santa Clara, redevelopment of the Tasman East industrial and Lawrence Station areas, a strategy for changing El Camino to what's envisioned in the General Plan and a report on the city's street conditions; 73 percent of which are “very good” and 23 percent are “good;” leaving only 3.8 percent in “poor” condition and a mere 0.2 percent rated “very poor.”

Despite Years of Consideration, Bus Rapid Transit Hasn't Gained Momentum

Although Santa Clara has been considering a VTA proposal for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system on El Camino for over two years, there appeared to be no more consensus on the proposal than there was in 2012.

BRT is envisioned as part of transforming El Camino Real – the peninsula's most-traveled arterial road and bus route – into a more human-scale urban thoroughfare, with public transportation that gets people to their destinations as fast, or faster, than driving a car. The planned route is from San Jose to Palo Alto.

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After almost five years of work, VTA has finished the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and plans to make its final decision on implementation in the spring. “It really is about trying to improve the transportation system on the El Camino [from the San Jose Area] up to Palo Alto … [ and] supporting all the cities' general plans …[for] intensified residential development around the El Camino corridor … that is really auto-competitive,” said the VTA representative at the study session.

“With the population predicted to grow by 30,000 by 2040, I think Santa Clara should lead in this [the dedicated BRT lanes] before traffic becomes unbearable,” said Santa Clara resident Suds Jain.

VTA considered seven plans, including two dedicated BRT lanes with stations in the median, and “mixed flow” without dedicated lanes. Dedicated lanes are the only model that make a significant dent in travel time, reportedly cutting it by half. This also allows more frequent service (at 10 instead of 15-minute intervals) and reduces the number of buses needed for the same levels of service. More frequent service would put more people on buses, with modest increases in cars on parallel streets, according to the VTA analysis.

There was also plenty of dispute on this last point; with several people noting that they already use Warburton and Benton to avoid traffic on El Camino.

Dedicated BRT lanes would come at the cost of many of El Camino's left and right turn lanes, a number of crossings and intersections – requiring more U-turns – and some street parking. Businesses worry that a two-year construction project will drive away shoppers, and limited stops will make local businesses inconvenient. Further, each city gets to make its own decision about the dedicated lanes. So Santa Clara could find itself in the position of experiencing all the disadvantages of the project with little benefit.

Others point out that the BRT won't get people any place except the El Camino.

“The real problem is VTA has no solution [for] the other two parts of the journey,” said Kirk Vartan, who owns businesses on both streets VTA is considering for BRT (El Camino and Stevens Creek in the future) in a written comment to the Council. “Getting to El Camino and getting from El Camino to the final destination.” Starting with BRT on the El Camino, he said, was “like buying a Ferrari before you build a garage.”

A simpler, less costly solution, he added, is simply adding more buses; and he suggested a low cost test of the dedicated lane proposal by simply closing two lanes on El Camino for a month and seeing what happens.

“We keep dancing around it,” said Mayor Jamie Matthews. “I want to make sure if we're looking toward something else, we should let them [VTA] know. As time goes on, the landscape changes. When we first talked about this, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and San Jose had said 'yes.'” But now regional buy-in is unclear.

“It sounds like I'm hearing 'wait and see,'” said Matthews, noting that the mixed use plan could still provide significant esthetic and safety improvements.

For more information, visit www.vta.org/el-camino-brt.

BART Update

Work continues on the 16-mile, six-station BART extension, which will ultimately reach Santa Clara. The Milpitas and Berryessa stations are under construction, and ahead of schedule, VTA Director of Engineering & Transportation Infrastructure Carolyn Gonot Development told the Council on Jan. 26. The new extension will open in the fall of 2017, and cost $2.3 billion by the time it's done. The next six miles will cost about twice as much, because, unlike the extensions from Fremont, the train will have to go underground; although Gonot said that VTA is considering alternatives.

Funding for the entire 16-mile extension comes from the Measure A half-cent sales tax, originally forecast to raise $14.3 billion when it sunsets in 2036. Currently the forecast is the tax will raise about half – $7.4 billion, according to Goddard.

The federal government provided about $900 million for the first phase, and VTA is looking for an additional $1.5 billion from the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) New Starts program. The project budget has to balance to get this funding, and there is still a $2.9 billion shortfall. Other funding sources include Cap & Trade emissions auction revenue and another sales tax, said Gonot.

For more information, visit vta.org/bart.

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