A far-off goal to build an automated transit line in Mountain View squeaked through the City Council to win funding for its next study phase. In a 4-3 vote, council members approved $850,000 to fund a second study for an automated guideway transit system, but several of them expressed skepticism that the project would ever get built.
"This is a lot of city resources and I'm concerned that it might not ever end up addressing anything related to transportation issues," said Mayor Lisa Matichak. "You have to be realistic of what's possible. It feels like we're looking at it, but it's not possible."
For more than five years, Mountain View leaders have been interested in studying some kind of speedy transit line to link the city's downtown to the growing, jobs-heavy North Bayshore area. City officials favored an approach that leaned on new technology such as podcars or self-driving vehicles to move about 8,500 people per day.
Last year, the city completed a $300,000 study on potential technologies, leading council members to throw their support behind so-called "autonomous transit," basically self-driving shuttles that usually have their own dedicated travel lanes but can also operate on city streets.
But there were still plenty of questions left unanswered about how this technology could be adapted for Mountain View. City staff suggested a second, $850,000 study to determine how this transit system could be planned out according to Mountain View's geography and land use. This step would map out routes and determine what kind of infrastructure and right-of-way would be needed to build it.
At best, the system would be built on an elevated guideway, meaning the city would only need small slivers of land to build the track foundation, said Dawn Cameron, assistant public works director. But in certain areas, it may make more sense to build the transit system at grade along city streets, or along the city's future reversible bus lanes on Shoreline Boulevard. If the project is canceled, then the city could repurpose the land to build something else, such as bike lanes, she suggested.
The biggest stumbling block for the city is the project's potential cost, which remains unclear. Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said she had the sense the project cost could range from $500 million to $1 billion to build. As a cautionary tale, she pointed to the prolonged $2 billion effort to extend BART to San Jose, and she suggested the automated guideway project should be tabled for a year at least.
"I'm questioning the feasibility of being able to fund this," she said. "Honestly, I didn't get the sense that we're going to get $500 million on this."
Cameron agreed that the funding remained an open question, but she said that was one point that this new phase of study hoped to answer. The study would also track the development of newer technologies, and how they could be adapted for Mountain View, she said.
"We don't have any firm answers on how to raise $500 million to $1 billion," she said. "But when you define a project, then you create the opportunity to find that funding."
In fact, the project price depends largely on the scope specified in the second study, said project manager Jim Lightbody. He estimated the cost of an elevated track would be somewhere in the area of $70 million to $80 million per mile. He pointed out that a route between downtown and North Bayshore, where Google has its headquarters, would be only be 2 or 3 miles long.
The transit line idea was emphatically supported by Councilman John McAlister, who made the motion to approve the second study.
"If you say no, then we'll never have the answers," he said. "Next to housing, transportation is constantly brought up as the concern that we're constantly hearing."
Less enthusiastic but still supportive were council members Chris Clark, Alison Hicks and Ellen Kamei. Clark noted that federal funding was extremely unlikely under the current administration, but that could change in the years ahead so it would be useful to have the city's transit project ready to go.
Margaret Abe-Koga, Matichak and Lucas Ramirez voted against the study.
Mountain View is getting some significant help to pay for the $850,000 study. In a letter sent to the city, Google offered $250,000 to help pay the cost. In addition, the North Bayshore Transportation Management Association, a consortium of tech employers in the area north of Highway 101, agreed to kick in $100,000.
"We remain optimistic that an AGT system within Mountain View is both viable and logical," Google transportation director Brendon Harrington wrote. "Future transit solutions are coming our way, and this work is key to making a true determination of the viability of the project, either with AGT or a future alternative system."