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Rapid Bus Lanes, Bikes Could Bump Cars Off El Camino

Proposal by VTA for dedicated bus lanes would be boost for alternative transportation.

A sweeping proposal to run dedicated bus lanes along El Camino Real heads to City Council next week for a preliminary review.

The plan, by Valley Transportation Authority, is part of the agency’s larger effort to upgrade its bus service along El Camino from Palo Alto to San Jose.

The El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT) would either add two dedicated rapid transit bus lanes along the median of El Camino Real, or continue running the busses with cars in the existing mixed-flow lane. VTA is not proposing rapid-transit lanes in Palo Alto, per se, but the design alternative is included in the staff report, and could potentially be selected if council expressed interest.

Council on Monday will begin the process of making a final decision in advance of a VTA presentation to Council in June.

The BRT project is being funded by the VTA’s Measure A transit sales tax program in addition to state and federal cash.

“The goal of this project is to improve transit operations along the El Camino Real Corridor by providing faster, more frequent and more reliable service with specialized transit vehicles and facilities,” according to a staff report included in Council packets Friday.

The Local 22 and Rapid 522 buses that run along the El Camino Corridor currently carry 20 percent of all VTA’s daily riders, according to the report. In addition to new rapid lanes and priority traffic signaling, the BRT project will re-brand the Rapid 522 buses and add executive seating to increase its appeal to riders.

VTA is scheduled to come before City Council next month with a recommendation for how it would like to proceed with the project in Palo Alto. Council Member Nancy Shepard serves on a policy advisory committee representing Palo Alto. That committee has been meeting regularly since 2011, and will help inform the City’s position.

VTA is also reaching out to all the other cities along the route, including Santa Clara, which has already signed off on the dedicated lane option.

If this option is chosen, there would be new station platforms and ticket stations added to the center of El Camino Real, similar in design to the existing VTA light-rail system. The 496 parking spaces along El Camino Real would also be either entirely removed and replaced with bike lanes, or at least dramatically reduced, to 138 spaces.

The areas that would be most impacted under this scenario include the vicinity of the Park Blvd., Stanford Ave., Ventura Ave., Los Robles Ave. and Dinah’s Court intersections, between College Ave. and Sherman Ave., between Fernando Ave. and Barron Ave., and between Maybell Ave. and Deodar Street.

Auto traffic along El Camino Real would also be impacted, in some part being diverted to Alma Street. A city staff analysis found that if this were to occur, it is possible that Alma Street may not have the capacity to support the surge in traffic during peak commute hours.

The City anticipates the maximum capacity on Alma to be about 2,000 cars per hour in each direction. Right now, during peak commute times, the street gets about 1,500 cars per hour.

If dedicated bus lanes are installed on El Camino, the city expects about 700 additional cars per hour will be diverted to Alma.

A few Palo Altans have already sent letters to City Council in support of dedicated bus lanes.

“Bus Rapid Transit offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create efficient public

transportation and safe streets for walking and bicycling,” wrote Acterra Program Developer Debbie Mytels. “Please support bus-only lanes, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements so that Bus Rapid Transit can achieve its full potential.”

Another resident, Irvin Dawid, said in a letter that buses deserve more of the road.

“Anyone can board a public bus - unlike a car, though, you do have to pay a fare - there is no ‘roadway fee’ to drive a car - it is done indirectly by the gas tax that haven't been raised for two decades, unlike transit fares that increase annually,” he wrote.

The entire project is being managed and funded by VTA, so there would be no cost to the City of Palo Alto, according to the staff report. Environmental reviews would begin next year and go into 2013, with final construction of the system completed by the winter of 2016.

More information about the larger rapid transit project can be found here.

Note: A previous version of this article identified the current Palo Alto representative on the VTA BRT Policy Advisory Committee as Gail Price, not Nancy Shepard, and that rapid-transit lanes are an option for Palo Alto, but VTA is only proposing BRT use mixed-use lanes.

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Andrew Boone May 13, 2012 at 05:34 PM
VTA, why has the VTA asked each of the cities for council approval? El Camino Real is under the jurisdiction of Caltrans, not the cities. What if one of the city councils rejects the VTA proposal? Will Caltrans implement it anyway? (I hope so.) It seems like a big risk to ask each of the cities for formal approval of this project.
Aaron Selverston May 14, 2012 at 09:10 AM
Thanks VTA, very helpful. I was going off the information in the report to council. I appreciate the clarification here. What would happen, though, if the council decided it wanted dedicated BRT lanes?
VTA May 14, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Andrew, You are correct about Caltrans owning El Camino Real. As such, any changes to the street will need to be approved by Caltrans and we expect that they will desire city concurrence on the street configuration. Secondly, VTA will be submitting the project to Caltrans for review at the same time that we undertake our environmental impact study. We'll need to define which segments of El Camino would have bus-only lanes and which would not before beginning those processes as it is impractical for Caltrans or VTA to study the multitude of potential street configuration combinations. If a city council rejects VTA's proposal for bus-only lanes, a mixed flow configuration would be the only option that VTA would pursue in that city. After all the cities have taken council actions on the street configuration, VTA's Board of Directors will evaluate whether the feedback from cities leaves us with a project worth pursuing. The goal of our BRT Program is to achieve a 30% transit travel time savings over the local bus with the investment in BRT. If that is no longer possible because enough cities have opted for a mixed flow configuration—in which transit will be slower than if there were bus-only lanes—the project could be put on hold. VTA Project Staff
VTA May 14, 2012 at 04:51 PM
Aaron, If the Palo Alto City Council wanted dedicated lanes, it would open that possibility for the project. Whether VTA pursued dedicated lanes would be determined by a few factors. VTA's project proposal balances cost-effective transit improvements, constraints related to federal funding, operational issues and traffic impacts. Cost-effective improvements: It costs more per mile to build the dedicated lane street configuration than the mixed flow configuration. So, to be cost-effective, it makes sense to install bus-only lanes in portions of the corridor with higher transit ridership and where auto traffic congestion causes delays to transit and to have the bus operate in the right lane with cars in areas where congestion is lighter. Federal funding: VTA is eligible for up to $75 million in funding through the Small Starts Program. Obviously, attracting federal funding to the project is a good thing as it means that more Measure A money would be available for other transit projects in Santa Clara County. The Small Starts Program is capped at $250 million. The estimated project cost for VTA’s proposal is $240 million so adding dedicated lanes in Palo Alto would take us over the program cap—unless another city opted for mixed flow, giving us cap space to afford dedicated lanes in Palo Alto. (Continued in next comment)
VTA May 14, 2012 at 04:52 PM
(Continued from above) Operational issues: It’s best for transit if dedicated lane segments are contiguous and long to limit the amount of time the BRT vehicle must change between the bus-only lane and the right lane. If Mountain View and Los Altos prefer mixed-flow, would a bus-only lane in Palo Alto be long enough to be worth it? We’d need to figure that out. Also, since the route ends at the Palo Alto Transit Center, the northbound BRT vehicle will need to get in the right lane at some point, which puts a limit on how long a dedicated lane can be. Traffic impacts: We expect traffic diversion to occur in areas that have dedicated lanes. Unlike other cities that have multiple routes with low traffic that can absorb that diversion, Palo Alto has limited options—basically Alma and Middlefield—which makes the traffic impacts on those streets significant. VTA Project Staff

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