After planning for the past decade to install express lanes on Highway 85, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is now pitching its $350 million sales tax funding request to widen Highway 85 as “transit lanes.” On June 24, the VTA Board of Directors [PDF] struck any reference to “express lanes” from the Highway 85 project description that they had approved on June 2 along with $6.3 billion in transportation projects:
This category willTo fund a managed lanes project that includes an express lanenew transit and congestion relief projects on SR 85, in each direction, and a new transit lane in each direction on SR 85, including a new transit lane from SR 87 in San Jose to U.S. 101 in Mountain View. Additionally this category will fund noise abatement along SR 85 and will provide funding to study transportation alternatives that include, but are not limited to, Bus Rapid Transit with infrastructure such as stations and access ramps, Light Rail Transit, and future transportation technologies that may be applicable.”
Express lanes are free for buses and carpools, but charge a toll to solo drivers during congested hours of the day to keep the lane free-flowing. Transit lanes would allow only transit vehicles – buses or light rail – but not carpools or solo drivers. VTA installed express lanes on short sections of Highways 237 and 880 in 2012 and has been planning since 2007 to convert the existing carpool lanes on Highways 85 and 101 to express lanes, completing Santa Clara County’s portion of an envisioned 550-mile network of San Francisco Bay Area Express Lanes.
Highway 85 is also slated for widening from six to eight lanes between Highways 280 and 87 with a second set of express lanes built in the median “because traffic studies indicated the additional lanes were needed,” according to VTA’s December 2013 State Route 85 Express Lanes Project environmental assessment [PDF]. The study notes that “the ability to accommodate traffic growth will be constrained by the existing capacity of the freeway,” and predicts that the expansion would increase vehicle miles traveled by between five and 14 percent during rush hours. Air pollution and noise would also increase.
“The good news is that if we’re lucky enough to pass a sales tax there’s going to be a tremendous investment in the 85 corridor,” said VTA Director of Planning and Program Development John Ristow. “The State Route 85 Policy Advisory Board is still going to be the working committee to assist staff in direction in terms of how, when, and what we want to implement in that corridor.”
But transit-only lanes would cost $500 to $600 million more than express lanes to build, and could result in longer delays for drivers using the general traffic lanes by not allowing carpools and solo drivers to use them, according to information presented by VTA at the advisory board’s meeting on May 23 [PDF].
Bus Rapid Transit service operating in the new transit lanes on Highway 85 “with infrastructure such as stations and access ramps” would cost an estimated $1.2 billion. Light Rail on Highway 85 would cost $3.8 billion. Both options would provide frequent transit service – but along a highway on the county’s urban fringe with few high-density job or population centers within walking distance.
In addition to $350 million allocated by VTA for Highway 85 in the agency’s proposed half-cent sales tax, another $1.5 billion is planned for traffic expansions on other state highways and expressways in Santa Clara County. The sales tax would also spend $1.5 billion to extend BART to Santa Clara, $1.2 billion to repave streets, $1 billion for Caltrain upgrades, $500 million for VTA bus and light rail operations, and $250 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements.