A controversial plan to construct toll lanes in the Highway 85 median could be abandoned, after city leaders made clear that the undeveloped strip of land dividing the congested highway ought to be reserved for transit rather than solo drivers in the increasingly crowded Santa Clara Valley.
The resolution to put the measure on the ballot, which was approved on June 2, includes carving out $350 million in tax revenue to go toward improving traffic flow along Highway 85, one of the county's most congested highways. Recent studies show an "F" level of service during the morning commute on long stretches heading north through San Jose, Saratoga, Cupertino and Sunnyvale. Similar traffic gridlock backs up commuters in the southbound direction during the evening commute from Highway 101 down to Fremont Avenue.
The resolution itself, however, marked a big change in direction for the corridor. Until recently, the plan was to convert the existing carpool lane into an "express lane" that allows drivers with no passengers to drive alongside high-occupancy vehicles for a fee. In an effort to provide even more congestion relief and increase the capacity of the express lane system throughout the Bay Area, the plans also called for converting the median of Highway 85 south of Highway 280 into an additional express lane.
City leaders in the county's West Valley region decried the express lane plan, calling it an ineffective way to deal with congestion along Highway 85 and a far cry from the original intent to use the median for light rail or an alternative form of public transportation. A coalition of cities including Cupertino, Los Gatos and Saratoga joined forces and filed a suit against VTA demanding a full environmental impact report on the project last year.
To assuage the concerns, VTA board members agreed to create a policy advisory board made up of city council members from throughout the county, including the West Valley cities, San Jose and Mountain View, to review plans for the highway. The advisory board's recommendation made its way into the language of the sales tax resolution; it called for a transit lane rather than an express lane in the highway median.
The prospects of converting the carpool lane to an express lane along Highway 85 may also be jeopardy. At the June 2 board meeting, San Jose Mayor and VTA board member Sam Liccardo said many people had expressed confusion and lack of clarity on what express lanes were, and may not be willing to support paying for a lane with tolls. Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said he had been unaware that VTA was considering charging tolls on Highway 85 despite campaigning hard for the sales tax for more than three years.
"We could not support a toll lane on Highway 85," Guardino said. "We want that to be transit. I hope perhaps that might be sent back to the policy advisory board, but that has not been anything we have heard considered."
Liccardo suggested that VTA could look for alternative ways to pay for express lanes, and strike any mention of constructing the toll lanes using sales tax revenue.
"We've got a bit of an impasse, and I wanted to see, if there is an opportunity for us to get consensus around Highway 85 express lanes, if there is an alternative funding source so it doesn't have to be in this measure, which I think would be somewhat divisive," Liccardo said.
The VTA board unanimously approved the revised language of the sales tax resolution at the June 24 meeting. VTA Planning and Program Director John Ristow told board members at the meeting that although the sales tax would no longer provide funding for express lanes, it would ultimately be up to the board to decide which projects to approve on the corridor.
Over the coming months, VTA will be working with the policy advisory board on a future vision for Highway 85, and what exactly constitutes "transit" in the median of the highway. Options include express bus lanes, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or light rail, all of which could trigger years of studies and environmental analysis before construction can begin.
One of the tricky problems that has yet to be solved is how to build a transit lane that spans from Highway 87 in San Jose to Highway 101 when the 46-foot median essentially runs out north of Highway 280. A VTA staff report notes that any configuration would need to be assessed against the available right-of-way through Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Los Altos.
The other problem facing Highway 85 is the high cost of improving the corridor. One positive aspect of the express lane project was that it was relatively cheap – projected to cost below $200 million – and quick to construct on the 24-mile highway. Constructing a transit lane in the median and running buses on the corridor is expected to cost about $500 million, which is well above the allocation from the sales tax.
Other options, like BRT, would cost upwards of $1.1 billion, and light rail is estimated to cost closer to $3.8 billion, according to a staff report.
A project development schedule for improvements on Highway 85 show that the next two years will be primarily dominated by a lengthy environmental clearance of the transit lane project. Construction is expected to begin by the summer of 2020.