Thursday, November 09, 2006

No Train Ride to Petaluma Yet

There was good news and bad news in the last election, but to me, the narrow defeat of SMART was a bitter disappointment. My visions of riding train-to-ferry-to-train to kick off a weekend trip to Petaluma will have to be deferred.

Some background: The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system is envisioned to run commuter trains (a.k.a. diesel light rail) between Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County and the ferry docks at Larkspur in Marin, via Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and Novato, reopening the long-idle Northwestern Pacific Railway Line. It was to be funded by a new 1/4 cent sales tax in the two counties, which required approval of 2/3 of voters in both, and came up short by about 1%. It had solid support in Sonoma county, but was less popular in Marin.

It strikes me as ironic that it only takes 50% of the vote to approve paying for infrastructure by running up billions in debt, while a financially responsible proposal that includes a tax to cover its expenses takes a 2/3, but that's the topsy-turvy world we live in.

Time is on the side of SMART. In a few years, traffic will likely be just enough worse to convince that last percent or two of voters that they need this train. But instead of just waiting for opinions to come around, SMART-proponents should be using this time to take a serious look at the objections that have been raised by detractors, and tailor their proposal to answer them next time around.

Bus Rapid Transit would be cheaper Real BRT, with service that would not get stuck in traffic, would require new bus-only lanes on the 101. This would could easily cost as much as rehabilitating an existing railway line. The BRT alternative should be seriously studied. The advantages of rail should be demonstrated, not assumed.
Trains won't connect well with ferries This is true, and to be honest, something that us boosters knew and hoped to work out after the system was up and runnig. Even though the proposed Larkspur station is only a theoretical five minute walk from the docks, probably 15-20 minutes would have to be allowed for a whole trainload of passengers, of various levels of mobility, to make the connection. If possible, move the station closer to the docks. At the very least, put some thought into streamlining the connection: eliminate any street crossings or steps, make it wide enough for bikers and fast and slow walkers to get around each other safely, and make sure the gangplank to the ferry does not become a bottleneck. Also make sure that ticketing does not slow things down (sell tickes on board, rather than at a gate).
It will only benefit:
  • Long-distance commuters
  • The Well-off
  • People living in Sonoma or northern Marin Counties
But not
  • People commuting shorter distances
  • Working class people who already ride the bus
  • Central and southern Marin
These are fair criticisms, and have their parallels throughout our region. Take a ride on CalTrain, and one on SamTrans, and you'll notice a definite demographic difference between the people who get to ride a train and the ones stuck slogging down El Camino on a bus. SMART should be better integrated into existing transit, for example with free transfers between train and local busses. It should be bundled with other transportation improvements, such as speeding up bus lines (through dedicated lanes, or traffic signal pre-emption), and improving pedestrian friendliness of station neighborhoods. If carefully chosen, additions like this would not up the cost of the overall package too much, but would broaden its appeal--and "synergy" between busses, walking, and trains would boost SMART's ridership.
It will promote growth Indeed, good transit promotes responsible growth, encouraging reuse and revitalization of existing cities over suburban sprawl. But there is a breed of "environmentalist", prevalent in places such as Marin County and Santa Barbara, to whom any growth is bad, not so much for its effects on the Earth but because it might make their own small piece of it more crowded. These people are assholes, and there's no point reasoning with them, but emphasizing the ecological and economic benefits of transit will help undermine them. This is an area where support from the business community would help a lot--not in the usual form of campaign contributions, but by making pledges to put new places of employments near SMART stations instead of paving over farmland.
It will not relieve traffic congestion This is true. Traffic always rises to meet the available supply of pavement. Transit doesn't really solve traffic problems, but it does solve transportation problems, by vastly increasing the overall capacity of the whole system. Be upfront about this, and describe the benefits of transit in simple terms that are actually true: for example, that a single track railway can move as many people as ten lanes of a freeway--and that as more people ride trains, service actually becomes better and more cost effective, whereas more people driving just makes traffic suck even worse.

The SMART board has vowed to take their case to voters again in 2008. Even changing nothing, their chances of a win are good--continued growth and economic upturn are likely to make traffic just that much worse, and a presidential election will probably bring more transit-friendly voters to the polls. Still, it would be a shame if they didn't take the next two years to actually listen to their opponents and make their proposal a little SMARTer.


Susan said...

Great table and informative arguments. It's just plain crazy that a bond is easier to pass than a tax that will cover a specific project. No wonder bonds are on every ballot in every election in California. I really worry about what these debts will be like when my daughter is an adult.

Anonymous said...

Because I don't live there this is the first I've heard of SMART. You've convinced me.

BTW, what was the good news? :)


295bus said...

The good news I was referring to was the fact that control of congress has shifted from the party actively trying to destroy America to the one that will just do nothing as our country falls apart.

Anyway, watch for more discussion of taxes, public debt, economics, and other exciting subjects I have no qualifications to talk about coming soon to this space!