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Menlo Park El Camino Real Bike Lanes Delayed Again

This proposed expansion of El Camino Real to six lanes at Ravenswood Avenue was cancelled in early May, freeing up $1 million for other transportation projects in Menlo Park. Image: City of Menlo Park

This proposed expansion of El Camino Real to six lanes at Ravenswood Avenue was cancelled in early May, freeing up $1 million for other transportation projects. Image: City of Menlo Park

Menlo Park’s plans to fix El Camino Real’s safety hazards were postponed yet again by a city council that is now split on whether to go ahead with the installation of even a bike lane pilot project. Proponents continue to demand that the city take action to prevent injuries suffered by residents in traffic collisions.

“The goals of Menlo Park roadway infrastructure changes should be to serve more people and to make our roadways safer for everyone,” said Bicycle Commission Chair Cindy Welton at the May 3 City Council meeting. “Our status quo street design that we’ve inherited is not working. No one is served by our high collision rates.”

Citing concerns the city is making too many safety improvements too fast, and under continued pressure from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to cancel the ambitious project altogether, the council voted to postpone it until after the city installs bike lanes on Oak Grove Avenue later this year. A total of 112 car parking spaces will be removed for the Oak Grove bike lanes.

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VTA Sales Tax With Massive Highway Expansion Program on November Ballot

The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) hopes to use $350 million in new sales tax revenue to widen Highway 85 with new express lanes, free for buses and carpools but charge a toll to solo drivers. Image: VTA

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s half-cent “Envision Silicon Valley” transportation sales tax is now headed to the November 8 general election ballot in the county, after receiving the unanimous approval of the transit agency’s Board of Directors on June 2.

The new sales tax would fund a massive highway expansion program, spending $1.85 billion on expressway and highway projects over the next 30 years, along with $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.

“I love driving my car, and I think 97 percent of our population does as well,” said VTA Board and San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis at the June 2 meeting. “More than 52 percent of this budget is dedicated to transit and less than 48 percent is dedicated to roads. In the meantime, 97 percent of population uses roads, whether you’re on the bus, or a car, whether it’s hybrid or electric, or on a bicycle, you need a road. We don’t float on air.”

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El Camino Real to Remain Deadly

San Jose reconstructed the southern 0.5-mile end of El Camino Real with wide medians, pedestrian refuges, and sidewalk curb extensions in October 2014.

San Jose reconstructed the southern 0.5-mile end of El Camino Real with wide medians, pedestrian refuges, and sidewalk curb extensions in October 2014.

On Tuesday, Menlo Park’s City Council postponed a pilot project to replace parallel car parking with buffered bike lanes on El Camino Real, deciding that neighboring Palo Alto and Atherton should also agree on a common design for bike lanes before proceeding with the permitting process required by Caltrans. Despite strong community support to fix the urban highway’s safety hazards, the city remains content with today’s configuration, after 11 public meetings held since April 2014 on the topic.

In late 2014 Atherton approved a similar conversion of two of El Camino’s six lanes through the town into bike/ped paths physically separated from auto traffic. But Atherton’s Town Council put the critical next step to conduct a traffic study with Caltrans of the proposed six-to-four lane conversion on hold in February 2015–just four months after approving it. The Menlo Park Fire Protection District remains staunchly opposed to bike paths and bike lanes on El Camino Real, claiming they’ll threaten residents’ lives by slowing emergency vehicles.

El Camino Real remains the most hazardous street on the San Francisco Peninsula, killing five and severely injuring 20 people in car crashes each year between 2005 and 2014, according to the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System (SWITRS). A traffic safety report published by the San Mateo County Health System last month showed that 18 percent of all collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists occur on El Camino Real, despite the street making up only one percent of total roadway miles in the county. Read more…

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Pedestrian Safety Still Starved for Funding in San Mateo County

Funds for over two miles of new bike lanes on California Drive in Burlingame were cut by the SMCTA at the final approval of this year's $4.9 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects. Image: City of Burlingame

Funds for over two miles of new bike lanes on California Drive in Burlingame were cut by the SMCTA upon the final approval of this year’s $4.9 million for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects. Image: City of Burlingame

On March 3, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) awarded $4.9 million to ten pedestrian and bicycle safety projects – $1 million less than the agency awarded two years ago. Agency staff had revised up the amount of funding for this year’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Program to $5.7 million in February, but explained in the Board’s March 3 report [PDF] that they had “corrected an error in calculation of the prior estimate.”

As a result, a project to install two miles of standard bike lanes on California Drive connecting the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station with Broadway Avenue in northern Burlingame was cut from the SMCTA’s draft funding list [PDF]. Money for crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands, yield lines, curb ramps, and sharrows on streets leading to Sunshine Gardens Elementary School and El Camino High School in South San Francisco was also reduced from $504,000 to $461,464, leaving the city to make up the difference.

Cities submitted applications for twenty safety projects totaling $9.3 million. SMCTA chose ten of those to split the $4.9 million in available funds, in awards ranging from $200,000 to $1 million.

“We’re thrilled that a number of worthy and much-needed bike and pedestrian improvements will move forward due to Measure A funding,” said Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Policy Manager Emma Shlaes. “However, the number of applications received and amount of projects that did not receive funding once again underscores the need for increased funding for bike and pedestrian projects in San Mateo County.”

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San Mateo County Still Thinks the Wider the Better

Highway 101 facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont, part of a 14-mile segment planned since 2009 by San Mateo County traffic engineers to be widened to ten continuous lanes. Photo: Andrew Boone

Highway 101 facing north from Ralston Avenue in Belmont is part of a 14-mile segment that may be widened to ten lanes. Photo: Andrew Boone

San Mateo County’s City/County Association of Governments (C/CAG) is leaving an expansion of Highway 101 with new carpool lanes on the table, even after the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) concluded they will jam up with traffic the day they open. If constructed–by 2024 at the earliest–a 14-mile section of the highway from San Bruno to Redwood City would be widened from eight to ten lanes at a cost of up to $250 million.

MTC says traffic will move faster in all lanes, and carry more people in fewer vehicles, if the existing left-most lanes are converted to Express Lanes instead. Free for buses and carpools, and available to solo drivers for a toll, express lanes have cut traffic on Highways 680, 880, 580, and 237 by maintaining a congestion-free lane even during rush hours. On Highway 101 such lanes could help pay for express bus and van services. The express lane conversion could be completed in three years and cost $110 million less than the carpool lane expansion favored by C/CAG.

“It would be a huge missed opportunity if we can’t use innovative strategies to cut traffic by moving more people in fewer vehicles along the Bay Area’s most critical transportation corridor,” said TransForm Community Planner Clarrissa Cabansagan. TransForm published a study in 2013 [PDF] making the case for converting existing lanes to express lanes on Highway 101 rather than widening it.
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South Bay Cities Still Have the Asphalt Bug

Santa Clara County want to depress a two-mile segment of Lawrence Expressway below grade to increase auto traffic capacity at a cost to taxpayers of $540 million. Photo: Andrew Boone

Santa Clara County wants to depress a one-mile segment of Lawrence Expressway below three intersections to “address existing and forecast traffic congestion” at a cost of $440 million in future sales tax dollars. Another $100 million is proposed to depress Lawrence Expressway under Homestead Road. Image: Santa Clara County

“Induced demand” is the idea that building and widening roads doesn’t make traffic better–it makes it worse. Late last year Caltrans finally acknowledged that, yeah, it’s probably true that all the work they’ve been doing for the past few decades has been for naught.

Not everyone got the memo. The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s proposed half-cent sales tax, which is supposed to fund everything from buses to Caltrain to bicycle routes, could also open the floodgates to billions of dollars in continued highway expansion. That’s because Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino, Campbell, Saratoga, Los Gatos, and Monte Sereno have included a total of $1.5 billion in auto traffic capacity expansion projects in their draft proposals on where to spend the money [PDF]. That means $1 billion will go to county expressways and another $500 million on state highways and local arterial roadways.

San Jose’s funding priorities [PDF] include $650 million countywide for reconstructed highway interchanges “to support economic development,” including $320 million for six expanded interchanges. Even more money could be sunk into traffic capacity expansions on city streets via a “local streets and roads” category intended for repaving but which also can include lane additions and signal modifications. The North County and West Valley cities have proposed $1 billion for local streets and roads, while San Jose has proposed $1.8 billion.

In other words, more and more asphalt.

“As a voting member of the VTA Board of Directors, I think expressways are extremely important,” said San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis at the city’s February 9 review of the sales tax. “I take an expressway every single day to work because I can’t get on Highway 87 because it’s too congested!”
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Riders Feel Railroaded by Caltrain Fare Hikes

Caltrain at Palo Alto Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Caltrain at Palo Alto Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Public transportation becomes less accessible for low-income Peninsula residents and workers this year with fare increases for both Caltrain and SamTrans buses. Caltrain tickets go up by fifty cents on February 28 while SamTrans bus tickets were raised by 25 cents on January 10. Unlike Muni, neither agency offers discounted tickets to transfer between buses or between the train and buses, and neither offers a discount for low-income residents or students.

“I’m a longtime Caltrain rider… but with the fare increase I might be considering other transportation alternatives,” said Sunnyvale resident Dora Tello at the December 3 Board meeting where the fare hike proposal was considered. “Please do not raise fares.”

“By raising the prices we will be excluding people,” said San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, the lone Caltrain Board member who voted against the proposal.

Caltrain officials estimate the fare increases will bring in $8 million more per year, which they say is needed to keep up with rising costs. While Caltrain has long maintained that electrification of the passenger rail service would reduce costs by switching from diesel fuel, its operating budget is projected to rise from $128 million today to $182 million by 2021, when the new electric trains begin running. However, there will be a concurrent increase in service, capacity, speed and, presumably, riders–so the increased costs should be offset by more revenue from ticket sales. In the railroad industry this is known as the “sparks effect.”

Either way, “Everybody isn’t going to get everything they want,” stated San Mateo County Supervisor and then Caltrain Board Chair Adrienne Tissier in response to complaints that ticket prices are already too expensive. “We all have to do our fair share to keep the train alive.”

“I’m going to support the increase,” said Board member and San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros at the meeting. “I’ve seen us come way too often to the budget discussion where we’ve had to look at cutting service.”

But transit advocates have long noted that the agency’s Go Pass program, which sells all-zone, unlimited-ride tickets to large employers, provides far too steep of a discount, ignoring a major revenue source. Go Passes are sold for $190 per year per eligible participant, usually employees who work at least 20 hours per week. To participate, companies must purchase passes for all eligible employees, whether or not they ride Caltrain to work.

Stanford University, for example, receives a discount of over 50 percent for the Caltrain passes it provides its employees as part of their compensation packages. About 25 percent of the university’s workers use Caltrain, which means Stanford purchases four passes for every one that actually gets used, or $760 per year per Caltrain commuter. Without the Go Pass program, the university would be paying either $1,512 per year (two zones) or $2,148 (three zones) for most of their workers. Over 100 organizations (mostly private companies) participate in the Go Passes program.

A comprehensive fare study later this year will “review the fare structure and pricing system-wide, including the cost of a monthly pass and GoPass, as well as the potential for income-based fare discounts,” according to the agency’s December staff report [PDF]. Demand for riding Caltrain is at an all-time high, and free transit passes are an increasingly coveted perk for tech workers.

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Super Bowl Blocks Bikes

Santa Clara Police close a one-mile section of the San Tomas Aquino Trail during events at Levi's Stadium

Santa Clara Police close a one-mile section of the San Tomas Aquino Trail during events at Levi’s Stadium, forcing the public to use a two-mile on-street detour. During the stadium’s construction, city officials promised that the trail would remain open at all times. Photo: Andrew Boone

Want to walk or bike to Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium this Sunday? It won’t be easy. The big game’s organizers have banned the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) from providing free valet bike parking at the stadium. The City of Santa Clara also agreed on a ten-day closure, from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9, of the San Tomas Aquino Trail for the construction of an entertainment area on the surface parking lot next to the stadium.

“Many of us were hoping to see Super Bowl 50 be the most bike-friendly big game yet. Instead, attendees will apparently have no place to park a bike, even if they are able to navigate past the closed bike path and double detour on surrounding streets,” wrote SVBC in an online petition to the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee that has gathered 280 signatures. “In a region with soaring traffic and a country where transportation accounts for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring people-powered transportation seems both irresponsible and antiquated.”

Valet bike parking and quality pedestrian and bike infrastructure cut both car traffic and reduce demand for car parking on event days, direct benefits to both Levi’s Stadium and those living or working in the area.

“The largest bike parking area takes up about 4000 square feet for up to 285 bikes,” wrote SVBC Bike Parking Coordinator Alison Pauline in an email. “We are parking up to 285 bikes in an area that could fit 13 cars.” Paluine said volunteers typically park between 100 and 200 bikes at 49ers games, depending on how many fans show up to watch the team play. Record turnout to date was over 700 bikes for a two-day Grateful Dead concert in June of 2015.

SVBC Bike Parking Volunteers at Levis Stadium

Volunteers park hundreds of bicycles at every Levi’s Stadium event, except Super Bowl 50, for which organizers have banned valet bike parking and closed the San Tomas Aquino Trail. Photo: SVBC

A network of over 100 miles of continuous off-street walking and bicycling paths stretching from Mountain View to San Jose connect directly to the football stadium’s main entrances along the San Tomas Aquino Trail in northern Santa Clara. “Our publicly funded San Tomas Aquino Trail has been taken over by a private corporation with the complicit support of the City of Santa Clara,” said former SVBC Board of Directors member Scott Lane. “This world-class network of off-street trails is intended for everyone to enjoy, not only those wealthy enough to afford 49ers football tickets.” Lane led successful negotiations in October 2014 between active transportation advocates and Santa Clara Police Chief Mike Sellers to allow trail access for people walking or bicycling to stadium events.

“While there will likely be a sizable increase in pedestrians on the San Tomas Aquino Creek
trail before and after NFL events, the creek trail is open to both pedestrians and cyclists and there are no restrictions on use,” promised Santa Clara city officials in the stadium’s Environmental Impact Report. “Anyone at anytime can access and use the trail.”

Additionally, the Super Bowl will cost Caltrain an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 to operate extra trains to shuttle fans to and from Mountain View, where they can transfer to Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail trains – operating for the exclusive use of Super Bowl ticket-holders. VTA rail ridership to the stadium is capped at 12,000, and even at $20 a ticket the agency said it will not recover Super Bowl costs either. SamTrans is paying 12 bus drivers to remain on call so that bus bridges can be set up in case Caltrain breaks down. None of the transit agencies will be compensated by the National Football League or Levi’s Stadium.

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Bigger Intersections and More Traffic Planned for Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station

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El Camino Real and Millbrae Avenue

Millbrae Avenue at El Camino Real in Millbrae, slated for expansion with even more traffic lanes despite its location at San Mateo County’s busiest transit hub. Photo: Google Maps

As the City of Millbrae inches closer to final approval of plans for new construction at the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station, officials have quietly proposed adding new traffic lanes and traffic signals to intersections near the station. The traffic expansions aim to cram even more auto traffic through the area, worsening already hazardous conditions for people walking or bicycling to and from the station.

The draft Millbrae Station Area Specific Plan to construct two major mixed-use developments on the Millbrae Station’s surface parking lots and along El Camino Real west of the station was released last June. The draft proposed only two new traffic signals and no lane additions be considered to support additional auto traffic, and envisioned a redeveloped station area that would boost both transit use and retail sales by making major safety improvements for pedestrians.

“Streets and intersections in the Plan Area will be reconfigured to provide a safer and more pleasant walking and biking environment that can be enjoyed by children, the elderly, and people with disabilities,” states the station area plan.

But last Tuesday Millbrae’s City Council approved a set of General Plan amendments allowing city engineers to add new traffic lanes to El Camino Real and Millbrae Avenue – already eight lanes across, including turn lanes – as well as lane additions or new traffic signals to three other intersections. This despite the fact that the project’s Environmental Impact Report, adopted by the city on January 12, recommended against these traffic lane additions, calling them “legally infeasible.”

“The plan as laid out in text and drawings prioritizes the convenience of auto traffic and parking at the expense of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit,” wrote Sierra Club representatives in a January 22 letter to the City Council. They also wrote that it contradicts “the concept of a Transit Oriented Development.”

Intersection Expansions

Traffic lane additions planned for two El Camino Real intersections adjacent to the Millbrae BART/Caltrain Station. Image: City of Millbrae


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San Mateo County TA Rejects Ped Safety Projects But Not Highway Expansions

San Mateo County TA awarded $108 million on October 1 to eight highway expansion projects, still believing we can "build our way out of congestion" on Highway 101. Photo: Andrew Boone

San Mateo County TA awarded $108 million on October 1 to eight highway expansion projects, still believing we can “build our way out of congestion” on Highway 101. Photo: Andrew Boone

With $125 million to lavish on it’s Highway Program this year, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (TA) has decided to spend $108 million on highway expansion projects while denying funds for major pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements [PDF].

On October 1, the TA Board approved $11 million to reconstruct the Holly/101 Interchange in San Carlos as a partial cloverleaf to accommodate higher traffic volumes, but rejected the city’s $3 million request to include a ped/bike bridge. Scheduled for completion in 2018, the interchange will force people crossing the highway on foot or by bicycle to navigate a series of hazards.

“With the new design of Holly/101, people on bikes still must cross and weave with [auto traffic from] high-speed on and off ramps, and it won’t make people safe and comfortable enough to use walking and bicycling,” Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC) Policy Manager Emma Shlaes told the board. “If a true Complete Streets design cannot achieved on the interchange itself, then funding should be provided to alternatives, in this case, the bike and pedestrian overcrossing.”

The pedestrian bridge was declared “not eligible to be funded from the Highway Program” by TA staff, even though the Highway Program has funded many safety improvements included in other projects.

“I certainly would not go so far as to say it would be illegal,” said TA Legal Council Joan Cassman at the board meeting. “But I would say that given the confines of this call for projects, and the rules we established in seeking proposals from sponsor cities to submit requests for grants from this agency for highway projects, we were quite clear that the requests for the projects we were seeking would not include separate bicycle overpass facilities.”

TA staff also defended their decision to deny funds on grounds that several ped/bike-specific funding sources could be used instead [PDF]. But those grant programs are tiny — dwarfed by sums heaped on highway expansions — so most critical safety projects remain unfunded for years or even decades.

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