The Mill Valley City Council on Tuesday night unanimously expressed support for a targeted two-year yellow school bus pilot program, as well as the City’s commitment to partially fund the pilot program, as part of a comprehensive effort to reduce traffic in and around town.

The proposal, for which Mill Valley School District parents expressed widespread support in a 2015 survey, calls for a partnership between the City, the District, the County of Marin and Marin Transit to implement a school bus pilot project that seeks to reduce traffic congestion and travel times along Mill Valley’s two main arteries of East Blithedale and Miller avenues.

A school bus pilot program was one of a number of recommendations from the City’s Traffic and Congestion Reduction Advisory Task Force, which held a number of data-driven, solutions-oriented meetings in the latter part of 2015 and will continue focusing on the larger traffic problem in early 2016.

The proposed school bus pilot project is specifically designed to target the more than 430 school district families currently making car trips across Highway 101 each day to get to school. The abundance of school-related, cross-freeway trips was deemed a contributor of as much as 25 percent of Mill Valley’s traffic, according to data from Parisi Transportation Consulting. That is largely a result of the fact that Mill Valley’s highest populated areas are served by its two smallest schools in Old Mill and Park elementary schools, and thus many students in those neighborhoods must commute across town to larger schools like Edna Maguire Elementary School.

City Manager Jim McCann said the school bus pilot project was just one of many strategies the City is looking to implement to fix the traffic problem, but that it was an important one to try. Download the Staff Report.

“The community really wants action on the traffic problem and expects us to find opportunities that are realistic,” McCann said. “My sense is that pursuing a school bus program is an opportunity that we can and should seize. It is realistic and within our grasp and it would make a meaningful impact on reducing traffic and reducing the travel times on our main corridors.”

The pilot program has an estimated cost of approximately $220,000, though that doesn’t include the administrative costs of organizing and managing the program, which will be handled by the School District with assistance from Marin Transit. The targeted program would likely utilize two buses that hold approximately 65 passengers apiece.

In a significant sign of its commitment to making the program work, the School District has committed to adjusting its school bell times, thus allowing two buses to handle multiple schools in both mornings and afternoons.

“We will tackle a sacred cow – when school starts and ends – to make this bus service work,” Mill Valley School District Superintendent Paul Johnson said.

Following the lead of successful school bus programs in Ross Valley and Tiburon-Belvedere, the City has committed to subsidize the cost of school bus service for at least the first two years to make it attractive to parents.

On Tuesday night, the Council endorsed allocating City funds to pay at least one-quarter of the cost, with the hope that that County, which includes 55 percent of District families in areas like Homestead Valley, Tam Valley and Strawberry, would also subsidize the cost. County Supervisors Kate Sears, who represents much of southern Marin, and Steve Kinsey, whose District 4 includes Homestead Valley, have agreed to garner the Board of Supervisors’ support for school bus funding.

Mayor John McCauley noted that while the City served the entire populace and not just families in the Mill Valley School District, “just freeing up the roads for all of us is something that the City can logically participate in. A lot of work has been done and there is still a lot of work to do. This feels right to me.”

School bus users will pay for the additional cost of the program at a rate of approximately $420 per student for both morning and afternoon bus service for the entire school year. Robert Betts, the Director of Planning and Operations for Marin Transit, created demographic interest maps using the results of the 2,080 responses to the District’s transit survey matched with the locations of survey respondents. In doing so, they determined that strong support existed in enough concentrated areas to target the bus service on specific areas.

Homestead Valley, for instance, is home to more than 100 families with children attending Edna Maguire School, across town. 

“That right there is an opportunity to get 100 cars off the road that travel daily to Edna,” Johnson told the Council, noting that Betts had already created rough drafts of possible bus routes. The school bus pilot program would not serve every neighborhood and every school at first, though City and District officials said the project could be expanded if successful.

“We are using school buses as a congestion management strategy,” said Councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters. “This is a very targeted and cost effective way of reducing traffic. I’m really excited that we have come to this point.”

City officials estimated that just 74 families would be needed to pay half of the cost through user fees of approximately $420 per student per year, which breaks down to slightly higher than $1 per bus ride. The City and the County would share the additional cost of approximately $50,000-$60,000 per year, with the District taking on the administration and management of the program with the help of Marin Transit.

“It’s appropriate that they do that since they are so close to these families,” McCann said.

With the City’s commitment in place and the County’s expected to follow in the coming weeks, the District and Marin Transit can start building the school bus program, including its scope, seeking bids from service providers, securing commitments from District families to participate in the program and implementing and administering the service.

The City’s Traffic and Congestion Reduction Advisory Task Force will also continue work on its objective and recommendations to meet it.

After a series of meetings, including a packed Community Meeting on the subject, the Task Force identified its objective “to reduce travel times on the East Blithedale Avenue and Almonte Boulevard-Shoreline Highway corridors to 2012-2013 levels,” as traffic levels have spiked significantly since then.

For instance, to achieve that goal, travel times on East Blithedale between Millwood Avenue and Highway 101 would need to go down by 35 percent from 7-10am, 24 percent from 10am-3pm and 33 percent from 3-7pm.

The Task Force, convened by then-Mayor Ken Wachtel, includes key representatives from the City, the County of Marin, the Chamber of Commerce, Mill Valley School District, Tamalpais Unified School District, Tamalpais Community Services District, Caltrans, Assemblymember Marc Levine’s office and Senator Mark McGuire’s office.

Its recommendations fall under three umbrella strategies:

  1. Reduce vehicle demand through measures like school buses and continued growth of the number of students walking and bicycling to school.
  2. Improve operations of existing infrastructure through actions like changing traffic light synchronization.
  3. Increase road capacity by changes like adding a dedicated on-ramp to southbound Hwy.101 from eastbound East Blithedale, for example. These projects would likely be the most expensive and time-consuming.

There are nearly 50 measures collectively within those three categories (go here for the full list of measures), which traffic consultant David Parisi categorized based on their likely impact, their estimated cost and the timeline within which they could be implemented.

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