Not SMART Enough
The Measure R ballot initiative this fall for diesel powered light rail service between Santa Rosa and San Rafael was, on its face, not a bad idea. The right of way is publicly owned. The goal is to provide a reliable alternative to the single occupancy vehicle--primarily for Sonoma County residents commuting to San Rafael. The $467 million plan would run 70 miles, have 14 stops, 14 diesel trains, and have an estimated daily ridership of 5,000 passengers.
The problem is that the taxpayers are being asked to pay $668 million in sales taxes for a concept without a land use plan in place and no firm evidence of ridership in what are primarily low density communities.
The major points are:
- The North Bay--Marin and Sonoma Counties--has developed in a linear fashion along Highway 101--a natural for a rail corridor.
- Traffic on 101 from San Rafael in Marin to Sonoma, and through Santa Rosa is nasty much of the day. Golden Gate Transit bus 75, a commuter bus from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, takes 100 minutes on average to make this trip. This would drop to 55 minutes on the train.
- The advocates are focusing on the train, but not the land use patterns necessary to support it.
- Ridership estimates are soft, and construction costs are unpredictable at present.
- League of Women Voters analysis of this special tax measure is here.
- The MTC supports the measure.
The rub was, once I did my due diligence, was that these horn blowing, diesel powered trains are not a better transit alternative, and there has been limited enabling of transit oriented development at the nodes--particularly the southern terminus, where the largest opportunity exists. And ridership numbers are really soft.
The southern terminus should be at San Quentin. A connection to San Francisco via ferry would be a natural at the San Quentin transit village. Odd that Assemblyman Nation, the same one that proposed the SMART legislation, has been so absent when it comes to changing the law to allow this transit village to develop. And the money raised from the sales tax is would be 70% of what is needed at San Quentin to recast the old prison property into a transit village with 86 acres of open space, 2100 homes, a deep water ferry terminal and other elements of a transit village.
The built environment nodes along the proposed route have not been planned in the density needed to make the train service self sufficient. MTC estimates the density around each station should be roughly 2200DU. Larkspur requires a ten to fifteen minute walk from the proposed rail station to the ferry terminal. Transit Oriented Development is a policy that the MTC and BART have come to embrace now as a way of building ridership and providing adequate housing and retail options--thirty years after BART was built.
Train service is overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration. The regulation and oversight makes for perhaps the safest mode of transport in the US. But many rail advocates argue that the FRA regulations have not only come at too high a price (by making rail prohibitively expensive) but in many cases are completely nonsensical.
Asking for $668 million for a transit plan that does not tie out with a smart land use plan is not very attractive to me as a voter. Providing alternatives to life dependent upon the single occupancy vehicle is a good idea, but this plan does not do that, on many levels. Tie this service to the redevelopment of San Quentin as a Cinque Terre transit village, and you might have something [and my vote]--but not the way it is presented here.