Proposal to overhaul El Camino Real paints a grand picture, but progress is lacking

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerOne road

El Camino Real came of age when car-based travel seemed like the inevitable route to the future. But after the construction of U.S. Highway 101 and Interstate 280, the Peninsula artery came to occupy an awkward place. It’s a swift-moving, multilane boulevard that acts neither as a local road nor commuter thoroughfare.

Transit systems on the “Royal Road” are stretched to capacity. There are no bike lanes. Meanwhile, traffic conditions are dangerous for pedestrians — more than 100 intersections on the thoroughfare have accident rates exceeding state averages.

Planners have long hoped to adorn El Camino Real with bike lanes, pedestrian amenities, and residential and commercial development projects well-served by transit. Yet a consensus has been elusive regarding how to transform a boulevard that passes through 19 cities and two counties, leading to the glacial pace of the rehabilitation project.

In 2006, after two years of talks, a task force comprising officials from all 19 cities approved a broad set of initiatives, agreeing that any development should be centered on aesthetic improvements and transit upgrades.

Just getting the groups to agree on anything was an accomplishment, even though the so-called Grand Boulevard Initiative contained no binding resolutions.

“The beauty is that there is now a lot more coordination and sharing of visions between the cities,” said Corinne Goodrich, the SamTrans project manager who leads the effort. “This is a forum for different city planners to come together and share ideas.”

Russell Hancock, president and chief executive officer of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, believes the Grand Boulevard Initiative is a framework for improving a road that doesn’t honor its dynamic home.

“The road is ugly, and I get offended by ugly,” said Hancock, who was instrumental in organizing the Grand Boulevard Initiative. “I go to European cities and they clearly have maintained a higher standard than us. I wonder why we can’t transform this historical boulevard to meet those goals.”

Hancock believes beautifying El Camino Real and adding commercial and residential developments next to transit lines is an ideal way to lure bright young workers to Silicon Valley. He laments that there is no one regional agency with the legal mandate to overhaul the road, and that San Mateo and Santa Clara counties have taken different paths to achieve their goals.

In San Mateo County, cities are encouraged to adopt smaller, localized projects that fit within the vision of the Grand Boulevard Initiative. There is no countywide framework for these efforts, although transit-oriented developments have sprouted up in Redwood City and South San Francisco, and Caltrain’s Peninsula station in San Mateo was recently boosted by new rental spaces and retail units.

As promising as those projects are, they make up just a fraction of El Camino Real’s 26 miles in the county.

“We view this as a project that will take a generation, not a couple of years,” Goodrich said.

The situation is markedly different in Santa Clara County, where the Valley Transportation Authority has proposed a series of robust improvement projects for El Camino Real. The authority has recommended installing two dedicated lanes for bus rapid-transit vehicles in the center of El Camino Real, adding trees and bike paths, improving sidewalk lighting and shortening the length of crosswalks. The project also would add transit stations and introduce Wi-Fi service along the corridor.

“The San Mateo version is very community-oriented, but it could take 60 years to accomplish,” said Kevin

Connolly, an authority transportation planning manager. “We could get ours done in four years.”

The experience of Santa Clara County suggests what the Peninsula can look forward to. While the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority has laid out a vision for El Camino Real, some towns are balking. Both Sunnyvale and Mountain View rejected the agency’s proposal for bus rapid transit in tight votes cast this year.

Sunnyvale Mayor Tony Spitaleri said the project focused too much on El Camino Real and not enough on connecting thoroughfares. The dedicated bus lanes would divert traffic off El Camino Real and onto low-volume residential streets while taking away precious parking spaces for businesses on the artery, he said, and the project still wouldn’t solve the lack of transit resources for passengers trying to traverse Sunnyvale from El Camino Real.

Spitaleri said the real problem in his city is not El Camino Real, but the underdeveloped network of streets that connect to it.

“It doesn’t matter if I can get here from Palo Alto in 10 minutes, if I have to wait 15 minutes to catch a bus when I arrive,” Spitaleri said. “In the end, the improvements of that plan don’t outweigh the negative impacts.”

Despite the local setbacks, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority is moving forward with its proposal.

More details about the project should emerge as the agency conducts its planning studies over the next 18-24 months, Connolly said. Such details will help ease people’s concerns, he said. The most robust proposal calls for $220 million worth of improvements, including dedicated bus and bike lanes, pedestrian improvements and a Wi-Fi network.

“Everyone wants a vision for change, as long as things stay the same,” Connolly said. “It’s great talking about ideals and concepts, but when you start getting into the details, people start to get nervous and these concerns arise.”

This tenuous path has advocates concerned about the project’s prospects. Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, said it’s important to see progress soon on El Camino Real.

“This is a bold and visionary proposal and I think it makes all the sense in the world to upgrade transit and concentrate growth there,” Metcalf said. “But I’d like to see them have more wins at the city level so they can bring this vision closer to reality.”

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