VTA Sales Tax Promises Transit Lanes On Highway 85

The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) estimates capital costs for Bus Rapid Transit service on Highway 85 - bus stations and transit lanes in the median - at $1.2 billion.
The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) estimates capital costs for Bus Rapid Transit service on Highway 85 – bus stations and transit lanes in the median – at $1.2 billion. Image: City of Cupertino

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 will To fund a managed lanes project that includes an express lane new 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.

Express Lanes are free for buses and carpools but charge a toll to solo drivers during congested hours. Since 2007 the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has planned to install express lanes on Highway 85.
Express Lanes are free for buses and carpools but charge a toll to solo drivers during congested hours. Since 2007 the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has planned to install express lanes on Highway 85. Image: VTA

“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].

Single and Double Express Lanes planned for Highway 85 by the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Image: VTA
Single and Double Express Lanes planned for Highway 85 by the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Image: VTA

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.

  • mx

    $1.2 billion to build a bus route? That offers none of the flexibility of buses, involves big overbuilt stations, and requires people to traverse big long overpasses to get to the median? Surely there’s another option.

  • “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.”

    Welcome to the South Bay. The VTA has a difficult enough time attracting riders with its current ineffective system, so shelling out billions to add insult to injury is the expected solution from the agency.

  • Overbuilt stations with plenty of parking no doubt. Sprawl, strip malls and suburban office parks just make effective transit planning even more difficult. VTA should just give up.

    Last year, the WMATA opened up the Silver Line (finally!) to Tysons Corner, an increasingly massive development in NoVA that had been isolated from the greater DC region by poor initial planning and inadequate transit options for the past 40 years. Three Metro stations now connect the commercial/residential hub whereas in the past most people clogged area roads to get to and from Tysons. It’s not a perfect solution (traffic in NoVA continues to be horrific), but smart transit investment can improve a bad situation. Sadly, I really don’t think the South Bay is on board when it comes to pairing smart growth with transit.

  • mx

    Exactly. With the right development, I can see it becoming an investment that starts to show some semblance of a purpose in a decade or two. But consider VTA’s own rendering at the top of the article. A giant multi-level bus stop with an elevator, a few escalators, huge platform space. What does it serve in VTA’s own wildest imagination? A long annoying overpass connected to a two story office building surrounded by parking.

    All that infrastructure would go to serve at best a few hundred riders a day within walking distance of that stop. Maybe you get a few more with bikeshare or a corporate shuttle that runs a couple times a day, but it’s still pretty bleak. Meanwhile, thousands of SF commuters ride bus routes like the 38 where the primary infrastructure at their stop is a metal pole and a little sign.

  • crazyvag

    If they could find a way to connect this directly to Mountain View Caltrain station, they might be onto something.

  • Andy Chow

    In California, there’s no such thing as transit only lanes on freeways these days. The famous El Monte busway in Los Angeles have been opened to carpools and are now toll lanes.

    VTA has wanted to add toll lanes on 85 for a long time, making it into a 10-12 lane freeways commonly found in Orange County. VTA has no transit plan presented for the corridor and the funding is only sufficient to add freeway lanes (no BRT facilities, no tracks). To greenwash themselves and to get votes, they declared this “transit” lanes.

    VTA may be right because this new lanes would be used by transit, such as the existing line 102, but there’s nothing that would prevent VTA from letting carpools and toll drivers from using the lanes in the future.

    VTA has a history to downgrade and cancel projects to suit what planners want, contrary to what was presented in the ballot measure. For example, transit on Santa Clara/Alum Rock was promised as light rail in 2000 Measure A, but now they’re building bus only lanes. They are up to their old tricks again. Rather than presenting a complete package, they just have to sell the toll lanes as individual elements over the course of many years, claiming voter mandate while expecting voters to have forgotten what it promised.

  • Joe Brant

    VTA doesn’t need any capital improvements to start running more buses in the existing HOV lanes. It needs very little to convert them to express lanes. I want to believe that they can improve transit on this corridor, but 1. the surrounding land use makes it very difficult and 2. they haven’t considered cheaper solutions before leaping to add another lane. For what it’s worth, the neighboring cities have been opposed to widening 85 so I’m interested to see how this will play out.

  • Why would you build a bus route that’s not even anywhere close to a single walkable destination? Freeways are built in the middle of nowhere for a reason; public transit is not.

  • Jame

    Some stops don’t even have a pole! Just some paint!

  • Karl Rowley

    I’m voting no on this. VTA needs to re-think their purpose.

  • Mary Cunningham

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  • robo94117

    Converting existing lanes to HOV rather than building them is more cost-effective and produces better results.
    http://www.transformca.org/sites/default/files/final_hot_101_paper.12.16.2013-1_revised_acknowledgement_0.pdf
    A per-mile driving charge would also fund more transit, and promote its use.

  • Maurice

    VTA consistently uses transit funds to play politics, with little regard to actually serving riders + taking people out of cars. This is typical santa clara county transit boondoggle, solving a problem for no one but drivers.

  • Maurice

    Why is the MTA we not aggressively funding transit only lanes across the region? AC transit transbay riders are terribly served by the Bay Bridge and the approaching freeways to the bridge in Emeryville? I wonder why this isn’t already built? Seems like it would be a gamechanger for increasing capacity.

  • Voters are always duped. In SF, voters passed a measure guaranteeing a minimum on time performance for MUNI. Yeah, that happened.

    Prop H was passed in 1999. “If you vote yes, you want the City
    to extend the Caltrain tracks to a new or rebuilt station on
    the site of the Transbay Terminal and to pursue certain
    improvements in the Caltrain facilities and services.” Sorry again, voters. It’s 2016 now and the TTC is grossly over budget so any funding for a Caltrain extension is gone. Maybe in 15-20 years. Maybe.

  • Funktapus

    You may notice that there are actually two bus stations in the graphic. One in the median and one on the other end of the bridge. So it would serve anyone within walking distance to a stop of any of those local buses.

    This is a commuter express service. They are considering both rail and BRT for the transit lane. Do you really have a better proposal?

  • mx

    My real proposal involves getting a time machine and not developing the Highway 85 corridor like land was free and unlimited, but it’s a little late for that. Since we’re stuck with that, I propose literally anything that is not a $1.2 billion dollar bus line. Setting the cash on fire would be more useful.

  • Jeanette Abbott

    <<o. ✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤✤:::::::!be137p:….,…

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