Residents battle possible expansion of State Route 85

February 12, 2014 — by Michelle Leung

Some city residents are fighting the possible expansion of State Route 85.

Some city residents are fighting the possible expansion of State Route 85.
At the Saratoga City Council meeting on Feb. 5, Saratoga, at least 20 community members spoke up against the project, which would add two lanes to 85 and change the carpool lane into an express lane.
Chief among the objections at the meeting was that when former Saratoga mayor Joyce Hlava signed the 1989 Performance Agreement between the city of Saratoga and Measure A, now Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, (VTA) promising among other things that State Route 85 would remain a six-lane road, she believed the agreement was lasting. The freeway added noise, but it also took away traffic from Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road in Saratoga.
The agreement indicates that parts of Route 85 will be reserved for a light rail.
But now that population and job growth have soared, the VTA is hoping to add another lane instead to each side of the highway. 
“I’m very upset because I negotiated the agreement in good faith and thought that they were negotiating the agreement also in good faith,” Hlava said.
The VTA and the State of California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) are in charge of the Route 85 Express Lanes Project, which is estimated to cost $170 million a year.
During the spring of 2013, the VTA completed project approvals and environmental documents. In late 2013, it began final design. 
Current funding for the environmental clearance phase is being covered by a federal grant and local money. $4 million has been spent on the environmental phase. A final decision will be made this summer, with two years to design. 
In addition to adding one lane to each side of 85, the project will also convert 27 miles of existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to Express Lanes, which will allow solo-drivers to use the lanes for a fee. Toll rates will vary, depending on congestion conditions. 
For example, in heavy traffic, toll rates will be higher than in light traffic. Solo-drivers will be charged electronically through an electronic toll collection system. Carpools, motorcyclists, buses and clean air vehicles can still use the lane, and trucks will not be allowed on the State Route. 
According to John Ristow, the VTA Chief Congestion Management Agency Officer, the goal of the project is to relieve traffic congestion along the route. The project, Ristow said, will not only increase the efficiency of the roadway, but will also provide revenue to further improve roadways. 
The impact of the expansion would not solve all problems, Risto said. The most severely congested lanes at Interstate 280 and State Route 85 South at Highway 17 would continue to be problems. The bottleneck on the section of 85 to Mountain View, where Google, Microsoft and Intuit headquarters are located, will continue even after the project.
Environmental issues came up frequently at the meeting. Although the VTA has conducted an Initial Study, or Environmental Assessment and Proposed Negative Declaration, it has not performed a full environmental impact report.
One community member brought up problems associated with toll roads at the council meeting, claiming that toll roads are discriminatory. Residents argued that instead of adding lanes that will increase noise, VTA should be repaving the freeway to decrease current noise levels. Several also expressed concerns that few people in Saratoga are aware of the expansion project. 
At the council meeting, the five council members unanimously decided to write a letter to VTA that conveys concerns regarding environmental analysis. The main issues were conflicting projections of noise increases, conflicting projections of traffic study and violations of the 1989 performance agreement.
Although many drivers, especially commuters to Mountain View who travel north longer, are happy with the addition, many residents of Saratoga are not.
Junior Minda Lee lives on the west side of 85 between Saratoga Avenue and Winchester Boulevard.
“I live close enough that you can hear the cars when you go outside,” Lee said. “So the construction noise would be really disruptive and also wouldn't it block the roads for a while? And that would cause a lot more traffic.”
According to the VTA, there will be no serious lasting environmental effects. 
The study also recommends further investigation of potential hazardous materials sites because of potential presence of petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents and ADl in soil and groundwater.
Students who live near the freeway do not look forward to any possible increase of noise.
Freshman Kyle Seid Phan, who lives on the east side of 85 between De Anza Boulevard and Saratoga Avenue, agrees that there are negative as well as positive effects of highway expansion.
“It’s good in some ways because there’s not as much traffic but not in other ways, like there’s lots of pollution,” Seid Phan said. “It’ll get dirty in people’s backyards. I wouldn't support it because people are trying to clean up pollution more. If you add more lanes, it'll cause more pollution.” 
After all comments are made, Caltrans will make a final decision on which alternative to take: expanding 85, converting HOV lanes to express lanes or doing nothing.
There will be a meeting hosted privately by residents to further discuss these issues on Feb. 25 in the community room of the Saratoga library from 7-9 p.m.