Potential Transit Designs on the Table for SR 85
Adam Burger

On April 22, the State Route 85 Transit Guideway Study entered a new phase as the SR 85 Corridor Policy Advisory Board (PAB), city staff and VTA staff convened at a workshop to discuss potential designs for a transit project along the corridor.

The study’s current objective is to identify different project concepts, called alternatives, that will be studied in detail for feasibility, cost and ridership projections.  The first task is to agree on which alternatives should be selected for detailed study.

Staff presented ideas that were designed around particular objectives including fast transit travel speeds and maximizing person-throughput (capacity) and access to transit.  Each consisted of different combinations of lane configurations, station types, numbers of stations and rules for who can use the transit lane.  A fourth alternative would evaluate what would happen if a transit project is not pursued, in which case it is assumed that VTA would pursue conversion of the existing HOV lane on SR 85 to an express lane and construct a new express lane between I-280 and SR 87.

The PAB members favored achieving fast transit travel speeds and maximizing person-throughput and indicated a preference for a low number of stations along the corridor. They also suggested including a transit-only lane that would allow buses to travel quickly along SR 85, then exit the highway to serve employment areas. The PAB also requested to review whether reversible lanes could be installed that would change the 3:3 lane configuration to 4:2 to correspond with commute flows.  Staff will refine project alternatives based on PAB direction and will coordinate with city staff about potential designs in the coming weeks.

Though the alternatives are still being developed, the PAB has indicated a preference in a transit service on SR 85 that would use rubber-tired vehicles, like a bus, and discard light rail as a consideration.  This is due to the high operating and maintenance costs of light rail and the likelihood that the SR 85 corridor would not generate enough transit demand to justify those costs. It also reflects a desire for transit to be able to operate beyond the SR 85 corridor on city streets.

The PAB has also indicated an interest in generating revenue from corridor users—whether through fees from private shuttles or single-occupant vehicles that use the transit lane—that could fund transit service in the corridor.  Finding new revenue sources for commuter transit services could be important because VTA is currently proposing to make considerable changes to its express bus program as part of the Final 2019 New Transit Service Plan—a change that VTA’s Board of Directors will consider at their meeting on May 2.

The Final 2019 New Transit Service Plan proposes to cap spending on express bus service at $5 million per year (VTA currently spends $10 million per year) and ask employers to partner with VTA to provide additional funding to operate those routes.  Presently, VTA pays about $34 per express bus boarding, which is almost five times as much as VTA pays per boarding across its other routes.  Federal funding that used to help support the express program ended a few years ago, leaving VTA to pay the entire cost—an amount that is unsustainable given the agency’s current focus on cost-reductions and cost-efficient transit operations.

The change to the new express bus model would occur in early 2020. It is presently undetermined how much interest major employers will have in helping to subsidize the cost of service.  Since VTA would not operate routes that do not have a private funding partner, the level of transit service that would exist on SR 85 in the future is uncertain.

The PAB and VTA staff hope to decide on about 4 or 5 alternatives in the coming months and complete a detailed analysis of each in fall 2019. 

A round of community engagement would follow and the PAB would ultimately make a recommendation to VTA’s Board of Directors about what type of transit project they would like VTA to pursue in the corridor near the end of the year.

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