Look up the El Camino Real BRT project online, and the first impression is one of cheerful support. But that's from transportation advocates such as the TransForm organization, which has given it extensive promotion, and materials posted by the lead sponsoring agency, the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA), which would build the route from Palo Alto to South San Jose along an old arterial south of I-280. Those talk at length about making the South Bay's famously abrasive six-lane commercial artery safer for pedestrians and bikes, better for public health, and more efficient as a travel conduit for a denser, less car-dependent population.
It could seem startling from a distance that in December VTA saw a need to post a rebuttal answering "Ten Myths" about El Camino bus rapid transit (BRT). Closer in, it's evident that the project has become a symbolic focus of worries about the South Bay's uneasy transition from quasi-suburban to fully urban.
From just north of San José up to Palo Alto, the old Spanish "royal road" takes the modern form of Highway 82, a broad commuter artery and commercial strip. To create BRT transit at the maximum level of efficacy, the project would have to punch a clear path each way through the six very popular existing lanes, reserving two BRT-only "dedicated lanes" on the main street of an area with high growth in housing and office uses. In keeping with the larger-scale Grand Boulevard Initiative, related streetscaping would seek to protect bicyclists and pedestrians.
BRT vehicles in dedicated lanes would function almost like trains, moving at their own pace among widely spaced stops without usually having to wait for other traffic. A VTA promotional video describes the future BRT vehicle as a 60-foot, WiFi-equipped "giant Prius". The plan would speed BRT vehicles along the narrower San José part of the route by means of bulbouts at stops and signal priority at traffic lights. (CityLab posted a further analysis in November with the help of TransForm's Chris Lepe.)
Seven alternatives are under review, ranging from a "no build" choice, to varying combinations of "mixed flow" with dedicated lanes of various lengths along the route. The maximum dedicated lane alternative, known as 4c, would run dedicated lanes for 13.9 of the 17.6 miles. Per the DEIR/EIS executive summary, the 4c choice would have the highest price in capital costs, some $232 million, but would have lower operating costs than other alternatives. (See Page ES-3 of the summary for comparative maps of the alternatives.)
According to VTA projections the 4c maximum dedicated-lane alternative, compared with the no-project alternative, would reduce BRT travel time along the route from 87 to 48 minutes while lengthening car travel time along the same route from 41 to 44 minutes, and local bus travel time from 102 to 109 minutes.
That may sound attractive if enough people use transit. And transit use has almost nowhere to go but up in Santa Clara County: VTA staff said only 3% to 4% of the county's population uses transit.
But critics worry that even if denser transit is needed, dedicated BRT lanes may not serve the area's present needs, given that many people do still travel in private cars. Cars that, if they can't find space on El Camino, will filter into the adjoining residential streets; that need to be parked; that carry people farther off the central commercial strip into suburban-style neighborhoods not easily served by transit.
Organizing Web sites are less visible for opponents of dedicated lanes. But online comments sections and letters to the editor fill up with arguments over the project's merits; news reports and supporters of the project say the opposition is solid and successful. Opponents have organized more privately, largely at the level of local city governments, six of which have jurisdiction along the route. (VTA in early January became the first public transit agency to join the Nextdoor neighborhood social network, which in some parts of the U.S. has provided hubs for neighborhood organizing.)
Comments are due January 14, 2015 on the draft Environmental Impact Review/Environmental Impact Statement (DEIR/EIS) for the proposal, which was released in November 2014 after a four-year process including 2012 conceptual review by city councils. And then around March the VTA board will select a preference among the seven project alternatives currently under review.
It wasn't clear if the six cities would state formal choices among the seven proposed project alternatives, and in any case the choice of project alternative will be up to the VTA board. Among the jurisdictions, San José hasn't debated the plan much because its part of the route is too narrow for dedicated lanes anyway. The city of Santa Clara, which would receive dedicated lanes under several project alternatives, appears to favor the plan. More opposition has been expressed in the more suburban cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos and Palo Alto.
Both Mountain View and Palo Alto were expected to send letters of concern about the project to VTA. The local Mountain View Voice reported public commenters at the December 16 Mountain View City Council meeting supported the dedicated-lane approach but the Council voted 4-0 to send a letter expressing concern on issues including diversion of traffic to side streets and the possible cutting of trees in the median. A fierce, sophisticated, impolite readers' debate raged through the rest of December in that article's comments section. A draft of the Palo Alto letter has been posted ahead of a scheduled January 12 Council meeting on the matter.
VTA's proposal is in cooperation with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), with plans to seek federal MAP-21 funds after the VTA board selects a preferred alternative this spring. Caltrans approval is required as well.
TransForm's Chris Lepe wrote that "some local businesses" including auto dealerships "have coalesced with residential NIMBYs" and are "trying to effectively kill the project." That wouldn't necessarily mean opposing all the alternatives -- just the more substantial ones. He wrote: "The problem is that if all the cities go with mixed flow, the project will not generate much ridership and time savings benefits, which in turn will likely attract little or no federal funding. As a result of the limited benefits and significant costs, VTA may decide not to move forward with a mixed flow project. ... If nobody jumps on board, if nobody supports dedicated lanes within the cities, then that means the project is most likely not going to go forward."
"Mixed flow" results aren't much to write home about. VTA's "Ten Myths" document said the existing 522 bus along the El Camino Real route would run at 12.2 mph under the "no build" alternative" and a BRT vehicle would run at 13 mph under a "Mixed Flow" alternative," but under a "Dedicated Lane" alternative it would run at 22 mph.
Asked if it would be worth the trouble to increase bus speeds from 12.2 to 13 miles per hour, BRT Project Manager Steve Fisher labeled his comments as made from a staff perspective but said, "I think you're picking up on key data points... I agree with your statement."
And Bernice Alaniz, VTA's marketing and public affairs director, noted as Lepe did that the project would have to compete with other projects for federal funding so it would need to show strong ridership and economic impact figures.
A portion of the CEQA analysis (p. 25) shows projected weekday transit ridership on the corridor increasing from the present weekday ridership of 12,512, to 14,588 under the "no build" alternative, increasing across the other alternatives to 18,616 riders daily under the maximum Alternative 4c.
Opponents, like supporters, tend to focus on discussion of the maximum dedicated-lane alternatives.
Mark Balestra, owner of the Pearson Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealership in Sunnyvale, commented at a November 11 Sunnyvale public study session (at 54:28) on behalf of the El Camino Coalition, which he described as "a group of concerned Sunnyvale citizens and small business owners." He said, "We're not opposed to BRT. Our concern is that despite the multiple options supposedly under consideration here... it's clear that the only option that VTA senior management is interested in is the dedicated lane plan and the cost of this plan is far too great."
Balestra argued the project would cause more congestion and expense than it was worth to provide "only a few minutes" of faster passenger travel across Sunnyvale. He said it didn't include north-south transit options (i.e. crossing El Camino at right angles) and suggested it wouldn't serve "the overwhelming majority of sidehill residents that don't live within walking distance of the four stations."
(Balestra responded to a query by writing, "the coalition of residents and business owners opposed only to the BRT 'Dedicated Lane' plan is far broader than the auto dealers and the concerns are far beyond the turn lanes." He offered to elaborate but had not done so as of press time. VTA has not yet posted texts of public comments.)
About the auto dealers, Fisher said they hadn't participated much directly in meetings with VTA but "they are working their own city councils very hard."
William Cranston, an individual Mountain View neighbor who spoke at a recent meeting of his City Council, wrote afterward, "I have seen no passionate support for any option," but that people in Mountain View only expressed "enthusiastic opposition" toward the two options that would place dedicated lanes in their town: Option 4b, with dedicated lanes from Santa Clara through Mountain View, and 4c, with dedicated lanes from Santa Clara all the way into Palo Alto.
Cranston focused on the difference for his area between 4b and the less drastic Option 4a, which would include dedicated lanes only across Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. He noted that the 4b addition of dedicated lanes across Mountain View would add 852 more daily riders (see p. 25 of the CEQA analysis.) He focused on a 2018 projection in the CEQA analysis (p. 29) showing daily traffic volumes east of Bush Street in Mountain View would be 53,865 under Alternative 4a but 48,561 under 4b. He wrote: "Where do the drivers go? They are not saying that the 5300 trips stop, they go somewhere else ... like the smaller small neighborhood streets with kids and cyclists. The neighborhood I live in already has a problem with cut through drivers. (They [roll] through stop signs, whip around corners and go well over the 15 mph speed limit.) It doesn't take many cars on small side streets to make it a problem..."
"Does it make sense to negatively impact more than 53K driving trips to get 850 riding trips? Do we want to push traffic onto small neighborhood streets where kids are walking/riding to school and playing? Do we want more cars on side routes that we are advocating for cyclists? The city council was asking the same kind of questions."
To concerns of this generic type, Fisher responded that projections showed cars displaced off of El Camino by BRT dedicated lanes would spread out evenly among parallel residential streets without overloading them. And he said "if the cities are with us" on the dedicated lane alternative, then VTA would be happy to work with them on traffic calming projects for neighboring streets.
There is also, of course, the prospect that some drivers would forsake their cars to ride the BRT system.
The Traffic Operations Analysis Report in the DEIR/EIS, at p. 75ff, predicts that delays from the dedicated-lane BRT alternatives as of 2040 would mainly not be extreme. The maximum Alternative 4c is shown sometimes raising the LOS rating by one letter grade, but producing modest increases in delays except at intersections that are already rated "F".
Other concerns include whether different transit priorities would suffer, especially north-south transit routes where El Camino runs east-west across Sunnyvale. (Transit advocates have said the best economic benefits would follow from building both).
To the suggestion that VTA should just spend the BRT money on more ordinary buses, VTA media spokesperson Brandi Childress said, "Adding more buses doesn't make them go faster."
Another recurring concern is how drivers may respond to losing midblock gaps in medians that currently allow left turns. Fisher said a dedicated lane would require every spot allowing a left turn to be a signalized intersection, but VTA was willing to work with the cities on adding new signals at left-turn areas now without them -- and Caltrans might want to "control" such areas anyway as traffic increases on El Camino.
And then, hovering, there's the usual trickily double question about who rides transit: is the bus a disadvantage-driven last resort or a voluntary choice? And does promoting a transit system depend on identifying it with prosperous commuters -- or does a system still deserve public resources if it does seem likely to serve and attract a less prosperous public?
Childress presented the future BRT riders as those who "choose not to drive," such as "students who are looking to not own cars".
Fisher said amid the growth on El Camino, "Who you see moving into those new developments" would be typically "younger people" working in tech. "Those folks are looking for a good transit alternative. Their natural inclination is to look to transit." He mentioned the famous long-distance "Google buses" as an example. "We know that market is there for us if we can provide them with a good transit alternative."
Childress wrote: "The future generation of riders (Millenials) don't want the hassles and expense of owning a car. They want good quality, efficient transit service they can depend on to take them where they need to go." She wrote, "We are looking to capture future riders of this mindset," rather than try to change those who "prefer their car no matter the circumstance."
But at the November 11 Sunnyvale event, businessman Brad Clausen, whose enterprises include a motorcycle dealership, said his 25 employees had told him none of them would use a BRT system to get to work. He asked if VTA had surveyed who rides the bus and why, suggesting: "My guess is the majority of those people don't have driver's licenses or have no other means of transportation." He said he doubted BRT would "impact" the [other] people using El Camino and suggested it would hurt businesses, congest side streets, and worsen offstreet parking in front of people's houses. "It's gonna be a mess."
Meanwhile Lepe said participants in public meetings on the BRT proposal had included disproportionately fewer people who were young, low-income, recent immigrants or people of color compared with the actual demographics of the cities involved. (He found it significant that Sunnyvale is the second-largest city in Santa Clara County.) He wrote that TransForm had begun a survey and other outreach projects to "engage a larger slice of the population."