Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photoA bus rapid transit system along El Camino Real from Daly City to Palo Alto could strengthen regional transit.

Plans floated for SamTrans BRT along El Camino Real

In an effort to reduce congestion on El Camino Real, SamTrans has begun to study the possibility of installing a bus rapid transit system along the busy commuter corridor, according to a transit agency spokeswoman.

The proposed BRT system is likely to extend between Daly City and Palo Alto, and it seeks to provide shorter travel times, fewer stops and additional amenities at stations, according to officials. Additionally, BRT buses would likely be prioritized at traffic lights to increase the service’s efficiency in heavy congestion.

“SamTrans is very interested in attracting new riders,” agency spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. “And from our experience with Caltrain, we know that speed sells.”

Before any such plans are implemented, the regional transit agency intends to embark on a thorough examination of the possibilities. That includes a range of feasibility studies and technical analyses, such as of bus ridership levels and stopping patterns.

“One of the things we’re trying to determine is El Camino’s density,” Dunn said, noting that BRT systems are more effective in dense areas.

Overall, BRT systems have two general options: one with a dedicated lane, and the other without. For El Camino Real, it’s unlikely a dedicated lane is an option, Dunn said.

BRT, which was pioneered in Brazil, is touted by proponents as a cheap way to provide what’s known as medium-capacity rapid transit. Other forms of such transit include trolley cars and light-rail vehicles.

Although BRT systems are cheaper in terms of capital costs — for example, installing the required infrastructure and cost of buses — light rail is considered a better value over time, said Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute. With light rail, the train cars can last 40 to 90 years longer than buses, they’re cheaper to maintain and they tend not to get into accidents as frequently, he said.

“The classic trade-off is capital costs vs. operating costs,” Diridon said. But he acknowledged that at the moment, such infrastructure projects are less likely to happen because the state — and country — are strapped for cash.

The BRT system is not designed or intended to be a cure-all solution, according to Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin.

“We don’t believe that BRT is any kind of a universal panacea, but it is a way to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of bus service in high-ridership corridors,” he said. “It’s a comparative cost-effective way, far less than light-rail investment, and can be implemented more quickly.”

The BRT plan is part of a regional strategy — overseen by the MTC — to help ensure Bay Area residents can efficiently travel around the region as the population continues to swell.

About $160 million has been allocated to San Mateo County for transit improvements — and those funds are made up of local, state and federal dollars, Goodwin said. Approximately $3 million has already been earmarked for projects.

The agency aims to complete a final report outlining the possibilities sometime this summer. Implementation is roughly scheduled for 2015 or 2016, according to agency documents.

mcherney@sfexaminer.comBay Area NewsPeninsula

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