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City Desk: Sept. 2, 2015

Bus Rapid Transit Can’t Seem to Leave the Station

VTA’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system on El Camino from San Jose to Palo Alto – first proposed by VTA in 2008 – returned again to the Santa Clara City Council with a request from VTA for the Council to inform the transit agency of its “preferred alternative” for the design. Yet at the Aug. 25 meeting, where it was on the agenda, VTA asked the Council to continue the item until the agency could present a third party review of VTA’s analysis and forecasting.

The City has been discussing BRT since 2012. The sticking point is whether to dedicate two lanes of El Camino’s six to the new system. Opponents say that such a move would bottleneck traffic, make navigating El Camino more difficult, push vehicle traffic onto other streets, and adversely affect El Camino businesses. But dedicated lanes – like light rail tracks or subway tunnels – supply the core feature that enables fast travel.

BRT systems are essentially “surface subways” that combine the capacity and speed of municipal rail systems with the flexibility and lower cost of bus systems. Like light rail systems, BRT systems use dedicated lanes in the center of the road, have limited stops, collect fares at the station, have station platforms at bus level and have a distinct look and identity – for example, BART is distinct from San Francisco MUNI.

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The El Camino BRT’s objective is making public transportation competitive with automobiles along the El Camino corridor – it takes 40 minutes to drive from San Jose to Palo Alto and about twice that to take a bus. The proposed route covers about 18 miles through Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and San Jose with 16 stops. Construction is estimated to take five years from start to finish and originally was planned in 2009 to be completed this year.

VTA has offered six alternatives: Doing nothing, all “mixed flow” (no dedicated lanes) and five with various combinations of mixed flow and dedicated lanes – numbered 1, 2, 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, and 4c. Stops would be out of the flow of traffic; accomplished with either dedicated lanes or “bulb-out” stops.

The dedicated lane plans raise municipal hackles over whether the dedicated lanes and construction-caused disruption will simply kill El Camino businesses – sending tax revenues elsewhere. The first VTA BRT project, Alum Rock to downtown San Jose, broke ground over a year ago. Since then, east Santa Clara St. has been “a fender-bender inducing maze that chokes off traffic to a slew of small businesses,” according to an Aug. 11 report at SanJoseInside.com. In July, work halted when a contractor hit a gas line. The VTA hasn’t said when work will start again.

None of the six plans put dedicated lanes in San Jose – in all cases the dedicated lanes start at Lafayette. Alternative 2 has no dedicated lanes, only mixed lanes, and leaves El Camino’s current six-lane configuration. Only one of the alternatives – “Long Dedicated Lane,” 4c – extends the dedicated lanes to Palo Alto. Two – 3a and 3b – limit the dedicated lanes to Santa Clara. Another two – 4a and 4b – run the dedicated lanes from Santa Clara through Mountain View.

The Mixed Lanes design – 2 – leaves travel time virtually unchanged (about 80 minutes) but would cost $19 million. VTA’s projections indicate that without dedicated lanes the only area where the Mixed Lane alternative offers an advantage is that it’s unlikely to divert vehicles to other streets.

The Long Dedicated Lane – 4c – would reduce travel time about 40 percent, making it comparable with driving (48 minutes), and, the VTA projects, convince about 6,000 people a day to take the bus instead of driving. The speed comes, however, with a price tag of $233 million, and the diversion of 206 cars an hour to other streets during peak hours, according to VTA’s model. VTA also projects that 90 more drivers will walk or ride bikes. However, the agency doesn’t supply historical evidence backing up these projections.

Currently, the votes for and against dedicated lanes are tied among the six alternatives. San Jose and Mountain View favor dedicated lanes. Sunnyvale and Palo Alto oppose them. And Santa Clara and Lose Altos have told VTA they need more information to make a decision. City staff recommended endorsement of the long dedicated lane design (4c). However, these votes are all advisory. In the next few months, it’s the VTA that will decide what the Locally Preferred Alternative is.

Funding for the project will come from 2000’s County Measure A half cent sales tax and the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts Program. Visit www.vta.org for information about the BRT program. For a summary description of the project and VTA’s analysis, visit tinyurl.com/santa-clara-BRT.

Council Questions Suitability of Freedom Circle Site for Newly Proposed Mixed Use Development

The bottom line at last week’s Council study session on Greystar Real Estate’s new proposal for a mixed use development on 13 vacant acres at 3925 Freedom Circle is that Council Members have serious concerns about whether the infrastructure in the area – which has always been zoned industrial – could support residential development. The Council’s comments indicated that unless Greystar returns with a plan that addresses the infrastructure deficiencies, a zoning change to mixed use is probably not in the cards.

Originally, Intel planned to build 400,000 square foot of office space. Greystar is proposing 305,000 square feet of office, 950 high-density housing units in three 5-story buildings and 10,000 square feet of retail space. Adjacent to San Tomas Aquino Creek trail, the location provides “good pedestrian and bike access to the Santa Clara Square mixed use office and retail services,” according to the agenda report. It would deliver about $25 million in park fees, as well as development fees to Santa Clara Unified School District and a hefty jump in property tax revenue.

Fronting on Freedom Circle, the development would use the San Tomas Creek Trail as a primary pedestrian thoroughfare to future retail on Bowers (half a mile) and Levi’s Stadium and other destinations on Tasman (one mile). Council Members questioned the realism of considering something designed for recreational use as a street.

“It’s interesting to put this on the trail [but] how would you carry your groceries down the trail,” said Mayor Jamie Matthews. “I don’t know that this would meet the definition of a conveyance [thoroughfare]. The trail is not a true commute option.” The traffic problems would be considerable on Freedom Circle, he added, because there is already a lot of traffic with people leaving work. “Now we’d have people coming home from work.”

The developer’s estimate that it would only add only 20 students to Santa Clara Unified drew a skeptical response; with Greystar getting the brunt of criticism that’s been leveled at most of the City’s current residential development.

“You’re saying you’re going to create a community with only young single people and seniors and no children,” said Council Member Teresa O’Neill. “Are you saying that people have to move to Modesto or Tracy if they’re going to have children? [This project is] addressing the needs of high tech workers who start at salaries over $100,000. Where [is the housing for] the people who are doing the landscaping … taking care of the children?”

“[For] all of the North San Jose [development], the student numbers were supposed to be zero,” said Mayor Jamie Matthews,” and we know that’s not true.”

Greystar said that it was willing to upgrade the Creek Trail and include affordable housing. But first wanted a clear definition of City policy on affordable housing – which doesn’t exist.

Not everyone thought the potential infrastructure problems were insurmountable.

“This is smart growth … to provide housing in the industrial area,” said resident Robert Fitch. “Simply because you’re providing housing next to jobs does have a major beneficial impact on transportation … we have a golden triangle where people flee at night to distant homes on crowded freeways limited by a governor who hates cars. This is a promising choice … We’d reduce air pollution simply because you don’t have people sitting on 101 … You could make the Creek an attractive part of this.”

Requiescat in Pace

The August 25 meeting was adjourned in memory of SCPD Officer Dave Paul – “He never ran away from work,” said Council Member Pat Kolstad. “He always ran to work” – and Terry Ann Sedanos, a teacher aide at Sutter Elementary School and an active member of Santa Clara Sister Cities Association.

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