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Palo Alto officials protest rapid-bus plan
Gennady Sheyner | Palo Alto Weekly


Plans are underway to completely rebuild the Metro Center on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

A proposal by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to establish dedicated bus lanes and remove more than 250 parking spaces on El Camino Real in Palo Alto is meeting vigorous resistance from city officials, who are questioning the assumptions behind the ambitious plan known as Bus Rapid Transit and calling for the agency to consider alternatives.


VTA is preparing to certify the draft environmental analysis for the project, which aims to increase ridership and make bus trips speedier.


Many details of the plan, which has been in the works for more than five years, remain undecided, as the agency is still evaluating which parts of El Camino should have dedicated bus lanes (and, by extension, fewer car lanes) and which should have a "mixed-flow" configuration in which buses share lanes with cars but pause at bulb-outs and new stations.


The Palo Alto City Council is set to consider Monday the latest iteration and sign off on a letter opposing the proposal to dedicate two of El Camino's six lanes to buses only.


In recent years, the transit agency has shifted gears in considering what Bus Rapid Transit would look like in Palo Alto. In June 2011, VTA assured local officials that the agency was unlikely to cut car lanes on El Camino in Palo Alto.


Steve Fisher, a transportation planner at the VTA, told the council at the time that in Palo Alto, the agency is "not looking too hard at dedicated lanes."


"We don't find the level of travel-time savings compelling enough in Palo Alto because you're getting to the end of the line," Fisher said.


But in the last few months, plans for dedicated bus lanes in Palo Alto have resurfaced. The new Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) includes dedicated lanes as a design option, a fact that has both puzzled and frustrated city officials. It doesn't help that the DEIR makes it clear that this alternative would affect traffic at local intersections to a greater extent than any of the other options in the plan.


In November, VTA officials returned to Palo Alto and made a case for dedicated lanes. John Ristow, director for planning and program development at the VTA, said that such lanes would greatly increase bus ridership in Palo Alto. Currently, the agency averages 2,516 weekday boardings, a number that is expected to go up to 2,851 in 2018 even if the bus plan doesn't launch. With a mixed-flow design, the number would rise to 2,987; with dedicated bus lanes, boardings would total 4,215.


"We really want to improve the transit option for the corridor because of the investments the city is putting in, as well as private developers," Ristow said, alluding to the large number of transit-oriented projects that are either planned for or under construction along El Camino.


In Palo Alto, numerous high-profile developments along the corridor won council approval in recent years. These include College Terrace Centre at 2180 El Camino Real, which will include a new grocery store operated by Miki Werness and the offices of Yelp. A few blocks south, a block-long development was approved around Equinox Gym, at 3159 El Camino. The project will include a restaurant, office space and apartments. The council is also set to consider in the coming months the latest proposal for a four-story building at 2755 El Camino Real, on one corner of the chronically congested intersection of El Camino and Page Mill Road.


At the November discussion of the bus project, Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez predicted that traffic "will divert from El Camino to get to parallel streets" and said the proposal "seems really bad for Palo Alto."


Even though the corridor is already expected to see more and more traffic jams in the coming years, the VTA's environmental study suggests that things would get much worse on both El Camino and Alma Street, which runs parallel to El Camino, if the number of car lanes on El Camino is reduced by two.


Without bus-only lanes, cars at El Camino and Page Mill would wait 94 seconds during the morning commute and 117 seconds in the evening commute in 2040. With dedicated lanes, these waits go up by 15 seconds and 27 seconds, respectively.


At Alma and Loma Verde Avenue, the delay after implementation of the bus lanes is expected to be nearly 16 minutes during the morning peak hours in 2040. Without the project, the delay would be more than 11 minutes, according to the VTA's traffic analysis.


In fact, the DEIR notes that traffic problems would remain "significant and unavoidable" at six intersections on the entire El Camino corridor and at 19 related streets, even with road and signal improvements. In Palo Alto, those include the Page Mill intersection and one at Embarcadero Road/Galvez Street and El Camino. The list also includes Showers Drive in Mountain View.


Easing the added congestion would fall to local jurisdictions like Palo Alto, though VTA has promised to fund its "fair share," based on how much traffic its program adds.


In its proposed letter to VTA, the city states that it supports efforts to expand transit service "but only if significant impacts within our city can be effectively mitigated."


The analysis from VTA identifies "significant traffic congestion along the Alma Street corridor and significant increases in delay along the El Camino corridor in the dedicated lane alternative, and yet fails to propose any mitigation measures to resolve these impacts," Palo Alto's letter states.


"This is unacceptable and makes it impossible for members of our community to support what could be a transformational project for our region," the city's letter states. "VTA should give more thought to alternatives and mitigations, and ultimately present a (modified) project that addresses a (revised) purpose and need without significantly and adversely affecting other modes of travel."


In the letter, Palo Alto officials also question many of the DEIR's assumptions about ridership and request that the VTA explore traffic measures such as removal of "pork chop" islands and expanding sidewalk refuge areas for pedestrians at El Camino and Charleston Road; consider El Camino as part of a network of corridors and devise broader solutions; and consider new fixes for intersections that would experience the most congestion.


It called the absence of solutions for Alma "particularly troubling." Even without the project, Alma is expected to have the worst delays, known as "Level F." And with Caltrain planning to run more trains on its newly electrified corridor in 2019, which will affect four intersections in Palo Alto, traffic on the well-used stretch is expected to significantly worsen.


In a report to the council, planning staff also points out that the dedicated lanes would require the removal of 94 trees in Palo Alto, while the mixed-flow option would result in removal of up to 18 trees. Furthermore, the bus-only configuration could result in removal of 256 parking spaces, while the mixed-flow design would result in a loss of only seven spaces.


The VTA is accepting comments on its DEIR until Jan. 15. After that, it will work on the final EIR, with the goal of launching construction in March 2017 and starting the new service in September 2018.