Election Coverage, North Bay, Regional Rail, SMART

November 2008 Election: Yes on Measure Q (Sonoma & Marin Counties)

Courtesy of SMARTTrain2008.org.

In 2006, voters in Marin and Sonoma Counties very narrowly turned down a 1/4-percent sales tax whose proceeds would fund Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), the project that would rehabilitate the 70-mile right of way (formerly of Northwestern Pacific) between Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County and Larkspur in Marin County. This year, that project is once again on the ballot in the form of Measure Q, again as a 1/4-percent sales tax requiring 2/3 approval for passage. SMART would operate DMUs (essentially, light diesel commuter rail) every 30 minutes at peak, with limited weekday and weekend service, comparable to the Sprinter in Oceanside-Escondido. The project also includes a pathway for cyclists and pedestrians along the right of way. The train would not connect directly to San Francisco, a fact that has prompted opponents to dub it the “train to nowhere.” But this claim is really without basis considering North Bay commute patterns: in 2000, a little over 75% of Sonoma County home-based work trips remained in the county; for Marin, a smaller percentage but still over half of home-based work trips remained inside the county. More trips still were carried out between the two counties, but still without a bay crossing. San Francisco is not presently the predominant travel market, and it won’t be in the future either, as this trend is expected to solidify and strengthen as new jobs are added to the North Bay. Even though most SMART riders will not be riding the train to Larkspur to transfer to a San Francisco-bound ferry, we still might wish that the Larkspur station had been brought all the way to the ferry terminal, and not a shuttle ride or ten-minute walk away. Nonetheless, we’re excited by the possibility of trains returning to grace the North Bay’s landscape of town centers and verdure pastures. Just like downtowns emerged on the Peninsula along the Southern Pacific right-of-way between San Francisco and San Jose, so, too, towns in the North Bay were developed along the Northwestern Pacific right-of-way. In that sense, SMART, just as Caltrain currently does on the Peninsula, would provide convenient service to North Bay downtowns. SMART is a worthy project, and North Bay voters are encouraged to vote Yes on Measure Q for SMART.

SMART track runs through downtown San
Rafael, which is already a regional bus
hub; SMART would upgrade the station
to an intermodal transit hub, a natural
spot to plan for transit-oriented
development. Courtesy of Northbayist
.

Leading the charge against SMART are Mike Arnold and Joy Dahlgren, and the “North Bay Citizens for Effective Transportation” (NBCET). Although formerly known as the Marin Citizens for Effective Transportation, the name was presumably changed to trick voters into thinking that the anti-SMART campaign has picked up enough steam to become a bi-county effort — this despite Sonoma County’s consistently strong show of support for the train. NBCET’s claims are usually formulated from actual facts, but they are stated in a way that is intended more to deceive than to educate. As such, its claims are not too convincing, and I hope that voters in Marin and Sonoma will not find them too convincing, either. Arnold has chanted ad nauseum that the project is an expensive boondoggle, but we have to wonder — has he actually looked at the price of building transit these days? Rehabilitating the 70-mile right of way would cost about $541 million, which, at less than $8 million per mile, is basically the cheapest major transit infrastructure project in the Bay Area. Out of fear of freight operations, NBCET has urged that the right-of-way be paved for bus service, but every BRT project currently in planning is significantly more expensive, per mile, than SMART. (We also ought to know better by now than to pave over a right of way when we are lucky to have one at our disposal, least of all one that is seventy miles long.) And speaking of freight: the North Coast Railroad Authority could run freight even without SMART; rather, freight run times would necessarily be limited by having SMART operate on the same track. Most Marin voters, at least, need not worry in any case, as freight would not run south of the wye at the Highway 101/37 interchange.

Initially, the train has been predicted to have only about 5,300 riders each weekday, but there are at least a couple reasons to believe that this projection is an understatement. First, the projections were calculated when gasoline costs were a fraction of what they were this summer (in reaction to which ridership increased across the Bay Area, including on Golden Gate Transit), and prices are expected to increase long-term, most likely triggering still further increases in ridership. Second, the projections assumed that freeways would be widened, notably the notorious Novato Narrows bottleneck; but the Metropolitan Transportation Commission is now under increased legal scrutiny for prioritizing exactly these sorts of freeway widening projects, the construction of which would be detrimental to climate change and air quality. In the event that the Novato Narrows is not widened, a revised estimate from 2006 predicted that SMART ridership would increase 7%, but that correction factor was itself a conservative estimate. Both of these factors point to an understated ridership projection.

A mostly unspoiled hillside in San
Rafael; courtesy of Northbayist.

It has been further suggested by SMART’s opponents that the North Bay would be better served by more buses roaming leafy suburban streets, rather than by running trains on a fixed guideway. But the North Bay is a fundamentally auto-oriented place, and simply running more bus service will not effect a large change in the North Bay’s attitude toward transit — at least, not without a corresponding shift in land use patterns. And on that point, an important nugget of advocacy has been downplayed by SMART’s supporters, perhaps not surprisingly, given that they face both NIMBYs and Marin County’s so-called “environmentalists,” who oppose all development and growth of any type, including smart growth. Notwithstanding SMART, both Sonoma and Marin Counties are expected grow considerably in the next two decades, adding about 130,000 new jobs and 130,000 new residents to the North Bay by the year 2025; this will increase the number of trips between Marin and Sonoma. Where will those new jobs and homes be placed: in downtowns, or sprawled across once-pristine hillsides? And will those new trips be made on transit, or in automobiles? Building SMART presents a unique opportunity to channel new growth into North Bay downtowns. In the process, we’d create more vibrant, walkable city centers, while preserving for future generations the lovely natural setting of which the North Bay is quite rightly so proud.

The time has come to restore rail transit to the last major part of the Bay Area that lacks it. I’m not sure how many Marinites and Sonomans read this site, but for those that do: Yes on Measure Q.

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “November 2008 Election: Yes on Measure Q (Sonoma & Marin Counties)

  1. Thanks for your analysis on this!

    I’m not sure I agree with you though. I can’t help but think this train will do one thing: keep Marin and Sonoma county isolated from the rest of the bay area.

    I also think the ridership figures are greatly exaggerated, particularly for commuters from Marin county. SMART will no doubt help commuters from Sonoma County, but I don’t think very few people in Marin will use it.

    I know almost no one in Marin who will take the train to Larkspur and then come to San Francisco by ferry.

    Posted by thamsenman | 3 November 2008, 5:47 pm
  2. I’m all for it, only if there are requirements for smart growth and high-density development around each station. Nothing wrong with building up in Sonoma county.

    Posted by Mark | 4 November 2008, 6:42 pm
  3. Here in Southern Calif., there was an abandoned SP rail line in the San Fernando Valley that should have been rebuilt into a light rail line (or a subway extension with overhead power). Instead, the right of way was paved over to become a “busway”. Now passenger loadings are greater than some rail lines and folks are asking “whose bright idea was this @#$%! busway?” The price for building rail wouldn’t have been that much more, and the service would be considerably faster and more efficient. Last report I saw showed measure Q winning, so sometime in the next several years I’ll have another train to ride when I visit the Bay Area.

    Posted by Bob Davis | 5 November 2008, 10:06 pm
  4. Here’s one Marin native reading —

    And I’m so glad that this passed… unfortunately, it was hard to convince some people I know who are staunchly anti-transit and just do not see the value that this train will bring, do not agree that the very small cost ($20,000 spent for this tax to collect $50, a tank of gas) will bring huge benefits in density and mobility. Too bad. It’s the future (and the law! thanks to SB375).

    Luckily, it has passed and will be built. In five years, when ridership is above projections, I’ll make sure to drop them an “I told you so!” note.

    Thank you so much for all you do here — it is invaluable to my engineering education and love for the future in transit.

    Posted by Ian Leighton | 6 November 2008, 1:06 pm
  5. thamsenman, I appreciate your concern, but North Bay isolation is a difficult problem to deal with. Rail connections from the North Bay to either SF or Richmond would cost billions, and ridership projections aren’t anywhere near high enough to justify that magnitude of investment. There may be fewer Marin residents riding it, but that’s no reason not to have trains run through Marin. The right of way already exists in Marin, and many Sonoma residents are traveling to Marin. Cutting the line short before Marin would only decrease ridership. Also, as I indicated in the post, most North Bay residents aren’t commuting to SF; the biggest travel demand is really within the North Bay itself, and SMART would serve this market. That said, it would be good one day soon to build a better rail/ferry link.

    Ian, I’m very glad it passed too. I suspect it may be the sort of thing where ten years after the trains start running, they’ll become an accepted part of the landscape, and North Bayers will wonder how they didn’t have them all along. And of course, we have to hope that the service will be popular and that people will demand more service still.

    Posted by Eric | 6 November 2008, 1:17 pm
  6. Allow another Southern Californian (apart from Bob) to congratulate the Bay Area for this victory.

    I have a particular fondness for SMART. I have family friends who live in Santa Rosa, and I became familiar with the Golden Gate Transit commuter buses.

    I was amazed at how many people have such an extraordinarily long commute. I’ve been on buses that leave San Francisco early in the afternoon and leave Sonoma County while it’s still dark at dawn … and I can’t believe that every bus along this long distance is full!

    I don’t think there are any BODO, or board-only/discharge-only, restrictions along the lines, because nearly everyone was riding the long haul with almost no intracounty travel.

    If you use the bus ridership patterns, SMART ridership is going to meet its records very early. Even though bus riders lose a single seat ride into San Francisco, the train and the ferry connection (then a transfer to a BART or Muni train) into San Francisco would be faster for most riders. The buses are really slow to and from the Financial District and Civic Center.

    Golden Gate Transit’s boardings are around 20,000 weekdays. I wouldn’t be surprised if SMART lures about 10,000-15,000 away from the buses.

    Posted by Wad | 17 November 2008, 3:11 am
  7. When SMART is finished, it will become the fastest and most reliable way to go wine tasting from SF without a car (which is always the wisest option for wine tasting).

    Ferry to Larkspur, SMART to Healdsburg, and there are almost 20 tasting rooms within walking distance of the station.

    http://www.sonomamarintrain.org/index.php/stations/healdsburg/

    http://www.avenuevine.com/archives/001932.html

    I didn’t see this mentioned in the proposal materials — perhaps because commuters aren’t looking forward to sharing the train with drunk oenophiles?

    Posted by theo | 23 November 2008, 7:49 pm

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