VTA may scrap plans for light rail on Highway 85

Transit services unlikely to attract riders along the congested corridor

Elected leaders throughout Santa Clara County rejected last week the idea of constructing a light rail line along Highway 85, calling it an expensive endeavor that would fail to alleviate traffic woes on the congested corridor.

The unanimous vote by city council members that make up Valley Transportation Authority's (VTA) Highway 85 advisory board on July 2 marks the end of a slow-but-sure acknowledgment that light rail is too expensive, too inflexible and too inconvenient to be an attractive alternative for commuters. VTA staff also concluded that the low-density residential suburbs adjacent to long stretches of Highway 85 are not "transit supportive" and cap the effectiveness of any future public transit option.

"I think we would make a good decision by cutting it as one of the options even though, coming in, I was an advocate to do (light rail)," said Rod Sinks, a Cupertino city councilman and advisory board member. "I've been persuaded by compelling evidence that we need a different solution that is more cost-effective for this corridor."

For the last four years, members of the advisory board have been studying ways to fix the hourslong traffic snarls that bog down Highway 85 during morning and afternoon commutes. The focus has been on the wide median of the highway, which could be converted into a transit lane or "express" lanes for high-occupancy vehicles and drivers willing to pay a toll.

The committee, made up of council members from throughout Santa Clara County, decides the scope of what transit options to study, which will come to the full VTA Board of Directors for approval.

While light rail had the support of advisory board members from the outset, the idea fizzled out as VTA staff and outside consultants pointed to a long list of practical and financial challenges that could plague a future rail system. Chief among them, building light rail could cost around $3.8 billion to construct, and only $350 million in funding has been earmarked for improvements on Highway 85.

A light rail system would also prevent any other uses of the median, such as private shuttles, and would have to be a straight shot up the highway without extending outside the corridor and onto city streets to reach more potential riders. An analysis found only 2% of Highway 85 commuters live and work within a short walk of the highway.

The vote to reject light rail came shortly after the release of a scathing Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report that slammed VTA for providing some of the most inefficient transit services in the country. Light rail in particular was criticized for high operating costs and low ridership that continues to decline, leading taxpayers to subsidize more than 92% of the cost to run the service. Members of the grand jury reported finding "virtually no support" among VTA staff for a current proposal to extend light rail to the Eastridge shopping center in San Jose.

Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who chairs the advisory board, told the Voice that the best way to cut down on the endless backup of traffic on Highway 85 is to give solo drivers a better alternative. He pointed to a recent study that found extending light rail into North Bayshore would cost between $400 million and $500 million per mile in construction costs, which is a high price to pay for a system used by fewer than 1% of Santa Clara County residents.

"Light rail is not efficient, it's very slow, ridership is low, and for people to transition from their car into public transportation -- that needs to be something that is fast, efficient and consistent," McAlister said. "If you are sitting on 85, the most that light rail goes is 40 mph, and it would require frequent stops."

McAlister said he remains a big advocate for flexibility. Whatever type of transit lane makes it into the median, he said, VTA needs to have a future-proof plan that can adapt to new technologies. More locally, McAlister was a proponent to study an automated transit system that could shuttle employees from Mountain View's downtown transit center to the city's jobs-heavy North Bayshore area.

Until then, he said, speedy bus services and private shuttles ought to take top priority for a transit lane in Highway 85's median.

"When I asked Google and Apple what they wanted, they said something with minimal transfers that operates at desirable times," McAlister said. "People don't want to have five or 10 stops."

Advisory board member Johnny Khamis, a San Jose council member, said the only viable option for the median is to construct express lanes, which act both as a toll lane for solo drivers and a standard carpool lane. He said committing a lane just for VTA buses would slow down traffic for the sake of infrequent public transit service, and encouraged anyone who felt otherwise to see the "horrible slowdown" caused by bus rapid transit (BRT) along Alum Rock Avenue and Santa Clara Street in San Jose.

"I don't like the idea of BRT because we know that it doesn't work, for sure," Khamis said. "Just come to San Jose and go down Alum Rock."

Private industry is ahead of the curve in solving traffic problems compared with VTA, Khamis said, and the best option may simply be to open up another lane and "let the chips fall where they may." Public transit services can always be added later, he said.

"I would like to see the transit lane be able to be used by public buses, private buses and people who will pay to get out of your way, because it's working everywhere else," he said.

Saratoga council member Howard Miller said any use of the highway median needs to compete with the capacity of a general use lane, which is close to 33,000 daily trips through Saratoga. He pointed to the Eastridge extension as a clear example of what not to do -- killing a lane that can support 20,000 daily vehicles to make room for a light rail service that may only end up carrying 611 new riders.

"We can't put a solution out that carries a few thousand (riders) and say we did a good job," Miller said. "We can't make stupid mistakes on Highway 85 -- we get one shot at making this right."

One of the major challenges outlined in memos and staff reports is that VTA is serving large, low-density areas with transit services, which inevitably makes it harder to run efficient, high-ridership bus and rail routes. Even Mountain View, a jobs-rich area along the corridor, has about 5,700 jobs per square mile, compared with 23,400 in parts of downtown San Jose, according to one memo. And with parking both cheap and plentiful in Mountain View, many commuters are inclined to drive instead.

West Valley cities adjacent to Highway 85 were designed "with the assumption that most trips would be made by private automobile," with street layouts that are purposefully designed to discourage through-traffic and make walking to transit stations both lengthy and indirect, according to a VTA staff report.

"The urban growth decisions made over the past several decades by city planners have created an urban form adjacent to the SR 85 corridor that is automobile-dependent and not transit supportive. Those land uses are not likely to change much in the future," the report states.

The current list of alternatives to be studied for Highway 85 include building express lanes in the median as well as a transit lane running the entire length of the highway. The transit lane would be for use by "high-capacity" vehicles, which means VTA transit and private shuttles and buses. The more ambitious options that have been considered -- and later rejected -- include an elevated guideway, light rail, monorails, subways, gondolas and Hyperloop.

Highway 85 projects will be paid for, at least in part, by the Measure B sales tax passed by voters in 2016. The measure earmarks funding for transportation improvements throughout Santa Clara County, including $350 million in funding for upgrades to Highway 85. The language of the measure specifically asked VTA to study bus rapid transit, light rail and "future transportation technologies."

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16 people like this
Posted by Katie
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 11, 2019 at 2:53 pm

For folks that do like in a 1-10mile radius of their job, why don't we prioritize making biking more safe? We live in an incredibly flat area with an amazing climate that lends itself to biking. Cities in Europe have adopted infrastructure, wjy can't we do the same?

10 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 11, 2019 at 3:01 pm

I agree that we need safer and more direct bicycle routes, especially along the Hwy 85 corridor and also the El Camino Real corridor. Why don't we have a safe and direct bicycle route from Google to Apple right now?

9 people like this
Posted by Yes
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2019 at 3:24 pm

We all need to bike, so when we get to our destination, we will all smell like sweat.

5 people like this
Posted by Rossta
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jul 11, 2019 at 4:05 pm

Rossta is a registered user.

Lets use the center strip of Hwy85 for a bike expressway. Ramps up/down to/from each street overpass for access. Non-stop while you are on it. Then develop more of the trails that cross perpendicular to Hwy85. This could be the spine of an amazing biking network!

I rode Hwy85 on bike the weekend before it opened all the way down to Blossom Hill Rd and back. It was a nice and memorable ride.

But on the topic of public transit, we keep arguing against using it because nobody uses. And nobody uses it because all we have is a piece-meal system that doesn't work for more people. Eventually we have to have some confidence in our actions and build the missing pieces. Maybe light-rail is inherently flawed - can't go fast enough - I don't know. But introducing yet another, different and incompatible system to our Caltrain, Light-Rail, BART, bus system just leads to more transfers and more time lost and inconvenience for users. Let's pick one for long-haul and one for local and expand it so it works. Maybe local is bikes and the long-haul (I'm looking at you, Caltrain) is friendly to those bikes.

10 people like this
Posted by Funny
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 11, 2019 at 5:05 pm

All these same problems were brought up with the BART extension.

Funny thing is that VTA has no problem funding that pig that is sucking all the transit dollars from bus, community shuttles, bikeways, Caltrain, and light rail.

For the past 20 years, every non highway project has had to beg for the pennies left after the BART pig has fed at the trough

4 people like this
Posted by Dan Waylonis
a resident of Jackson Park
on Jul 11, 2019 at 7:09 pm

Dan Waylonis is a registered user.

This seems like a non-starter given the recent Grand Jury report that the current VTA management of the existing Light Rail is a disaster: Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Don Keedick
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 12, 2019 at 7:42 am

Odd, council turns down opportunity to secure more graft from Feds. They must really hate the Orange Man

1 person likes this
Posted by Ken Pyle
a resident of another community
on Jul 12, 2019 at 5:05 pm

The Winchester Neighborhood Action Coalition has been advocating for a regional "freeway within a freeway" network that takes advantage of the huge rights-of-way we already have, such as highway 85. At strategic intersections, "caps" would be added and the land immediately around and over the freeway would be used for mixed-use, relatively dense, mixed-use housing, retail, parks and transportation nodes.

The concept is that people living on those nodes could hop on a frequent, electric bus (public or private) that they are within a 1/4 of a mile. For people who live in the traditional suburbs, there would be low-speed shuttles and personal mobility options, so they could ditch the single passenger car. As mentioned above, bike lanes at the edge of the freeway would be included to provide additional transportation alternatives.

Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 14, 2019 at 7:13 am

What is up with the double HOV lane at 101 right were it branches off into 85. This thing is such a disaster. I see 3 lanes at a standstill, while the two HOV lanes are flying. A lot of people try to escape the jam by jumping into the fast HOV lane which is super dangerous. This shouldn't have ever happened. Honestly they should get rid of HOV lanes, period. But that would cut into their revenue too much... why else does an HOV violation carry a $500 fine?

The myth that the "single-occupant vehicle" is something bad that can be fixed if we make enough hov/light rail/bicycle lanes is officially over.

3 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 14, 2019 at 1:15 pm

What S Clara county needs is a train along the highway but without smog inhaling stations on the highway (and no need to eminent domain the houses), an express light rail without highway stops, and i stress, very high density housing like SF downtown, at both ends, in very limited locations. That high density housing cannot be everywhere because well, some people dont want to "ruin" their suburbia. This satisfies both YIMBYs and NIMBYs. In other words, if people in their cars see the train zipping along a corridor, without idling here and there, they might think, hmm, this actually makes sense. Let's focus on high density point A to high density B, not low denisty everywhere to low density everywhere.

2 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of another community
on Aug 28, 2019 at 12:44 am

I commuted from 2005 to 2018 between Almaden and north of bayshore. At this point the problem of traffic on 85 is probably best solved by improving the distribution of jobs around the south bay, and reducing the need to bring everyone into one place in MV. Google is an internet company, and most internal meetings at Google now take place over videoconference anyway. I think that building high density near the light rail might salvage the thing, but putting it down the middle of 85 is going to kill that possibility. The light rail was terribly planned from the beginning, as evidenced by the fact that there is a lot of employment north of downtown san jose, and a lot of housing south of downtown san jose. Taking light rail between the two unfortunately requires going through downtown at a snail's pace in order to satisfy the political goal of propping up downtown. If the downtown part had been planned as a spur from a faster elevated line that paralleled 87, then it might have gained a lot more ridership.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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