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.