Tuesday's meeting on Mountain View's annual budget was overshadowed by a crowd of public speakers wanting to talk about the council's controversial move last week to support creating dedicated bus lanes on El Camino Real.
In the days since the decision, a groundswell of irate Mountain View residents have blasted council members for backing the bus plan. Meanwhile, city leaders have struggled to explain why they believe streamlined bus service, at the expense of two lanes on the six-lane road, was ultimately in the city's best interest.
The decision last week to endorse the Bus Rapid Transit plan came as a surprise for many in Mountain View. Expectations were for elected leaders to come out against the plan, as they had on multiple past occasions when the Valley Transportation Authority brought it forward for the city to review.
At a cost of $223 million, the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal would enhance bus service by providing an express route running from Palo Alto down to San Jose. The plan by the Valley Transportation Authority calls for two lanes of El Camino Real - one in each direction - to be closed off to all motorists except public buses. For the first time last week, VTA officials indicated the exclusive lanes could also be considered for emergency vehicles and possibly private company shuttles.
But many say they saw little reason to think last week's review by the Mountain View City Council would go differently. The three new council members who joined city government this year - Pat Showalter, Ken Rosenberg and Lenny Siegel - had each campaigned saying they opposed dedicated bus lanes.
But after hours of late-night deliberation, Rosenberg, Showalter and Councilman Michael Kasperzak last week gradually came around to signaling support for the BRT proposal. The council ended up supporting the dedicated lanes in a 3-2 vote, with Mayor John McAlister and Chris Clark recusing themselves.
In an interview on Wednesday, Rosenberg elaborated on his support for dedicated bus lanes, saying he understood why some Mountain View residents perceived his vote as a policy reversal. Since being elected, he said he reviewed more information and spoke with advocates from VTA and transportation advocacy groups. A major selling point for him, he said, was that bus-only lanes provided a transit solution for those struggling in Mountain View, including residents and workers commuting daily into town.
"I changed my mind on the dedicated lane specifically because I now have a different perspective," Rosenberg said. "You starting thinking to yourself, 'How do you take care of these people?' It's my job not just to support people living in Mountain View but also those who work here."
Nevertheless, the backlash was swift from locals concerned the VTA's bus plan would result in a traffic nightmare. Within a few days, an online petition demanding a reversal in the council's support generated more than 500 signatures. On Tuesday, local attorney Gary Wesley said he was in the early stages of planning a recall petition against BRT supporters on the council.
Other speakers vented their frustrations at the Tuesday, April 28 meeting. Addressing Rosenberg directly, Cuesta Park resident True Tourtillott said he felt misled by the councilman's shift from when he was campaigning.
"You stood on my front porch, you looked me in the eye and told me you opposed this plan," he fumed.
Asked about his campaign stances, Rosenberg explained that he had always supported the BRT plan in concept, but he specifically opposed the dedicated bus lanes. To a degree, he said his "naivete" as a rookie politician caused him to do a poor job of articulating how his views had evolved.
"I understand the animosity and vitriol and disappointment felt by some people," he said. "I take El Camino Real every day also, but the people who are so adamantly against this plan, they don't have a great alternative."
In a sense, Mountain View's support for the bus plan came as much as a result of the quirks of statewide conflict-of-interest rules as the policy leanings of individual city leaders. The two council members who didn't vote, McAlister and Clark, both recused themselves from the decision due to owning property within 500 feet of El Camino Real.
Speaking to the Voice on Wednesday, McAlister said he did not support the bus lane plan. Better transit solutions would be to extend a BART line through the South Bay or to improve express bus services, he said.
"I have a great window from my store where I can see buses and they're never near capacity," he said. "I'm all for mass transit, but this wasn't the correct answer."
Mountain View's support for the bus plan provides a "jumping-off point" for transportation advocates to use to bolster support among other communities wary of the plan. It has always been a difficult case to make to individual cities to set aside their provincial interest and see the regional merits of the project, said Chris Lepe, Senior Community Planner with TransForm, a California public transit advocacy group. Past intransigence was to blame for scuttling other beneficial transit projects, such as plans to have BART wrap around the South Bay, he said.
"Weighing the costs and benefits, (BRT) isn't a perfect project, but let's move forward together," Lepe said. "This project not happening resonated with the Mountain View council. They don't want to be those decision makers who, 20 years from now, people say: 'What were they thinking?"
For his part, Rosenberg was adamant that his support remained conditional on VTA presenting plans that served Mountain View. It would be a deal-breaker, he said, if transit officials didn't add in an extra stop at Escuela, reasonable connectivity for distant neighborhoods and additional uses for the dedicated lanes. By signaling support for the plan now, Mountain View has a seat at the table, he said
"If we had said no, here's what would have happened: the VTA board would have said, 'We're going to make a decision for them.' They'd be cramming something down our throats," Rosenberg said.