GGT and MT: More than a marriage of convenience

Transit Rush

Transit Rush by fchrist2, on Flickr

Since January, Marin Transit (MT) officials have been renegotiating their contract with Golden Gate Transit (GGT), which currently provides the bulk of local service throughout the county.  MT says they’re paying GGT too much to operate the local routes and want to lower the contract’s $16 million cost. This makes sense, given MT’s rather severe budget crunch, but from a rider’s standpoint the marriage has been more than simply money. Unified bus service has put Marin head and shoulders above the balkanized systems in other counties, especially Sonoma. Keeping it intact, or at least keeping inter-operator cooperation, is vital to transit in the North Bay.

While high-level debates of who runs what buses where are important to those who run the buses or those who pontificate about those who run the buses, regular riders typically don’t care. They get where they need to go whether it’s on GGT, MT, or Muni. It’s like passing from one jurisdiction’s roads to another. Drivers don’t care who maintains the the roads as long as they work.

The seams between transit agencies are rather more visible than the seams between roads, though. Transfers, schedules, routing, maps, branding, and more all serve to differentiate one system from the next. Within the Bay Area, not all transit agencies even have the same fare medium, forcing people transferring from one to the other to carry a Clipper Card and pounds of assorted change. Transfers aren’t always honored between agencies either, needlessly increasing costs for riders.

To use the driving metaphor again, imagine buying a local road map that left out all the state-owned roads and highways, requiring you to buy a second map that only shows state-owned roads and highways. Drivers would never put up with such a thing, but that’s the situation in the Bay Area.

SPUR has argued for a more integrated system for the whole Bay Area, unifying the various systems’ branding, maps, and fare structures while keeping the agencies separated. It would also allow agencies to pick up and drop off passengers within other agencies’ areas. GGT buses, in other words, could pick up someone along Van Ness and drop them off at Lombard, or AC Transit could start running buses through Marin.

While this is an ideal situation, it’s a long way from current reality in most of the region, with one exception: Marin.

Marin’s local contracting scheme with GGT has given Marinites a mostly integrated local and regional transit system (shuttles and Stagecoach aren’t seamless with regular operations). Transfers are easy and painless, GGT can operate throughout Marin as it sees fit, and riders are none the wiser. Even bus branding, while different, is similar enough that buses blend easily.

Alas, the benefits to riders have come at a steep price for Marin Transit. GGT’s contract mandates 5% increases in payments every year, a hefty cost for the tiny agency. GGT’s contract also slows service changes dramatically. Change to Tiburon bus service, for example, will take an astounding 18 months to implement. Other improvements, such as real-time arrival service, have been offered on Stagecoach for years but still aren’t part of the GGT-operated lines.

The cost to operate GGT has gone up, but not nearly as much as other bus agencies. Image: SPUR (PDF)

Though these cost increases are slower than other regional agencies, the contract’s slow-walk of service changes means Marin Transit can’t respond to lower or higher demand in a timely fashion. The constantly increasing costs, too, have put MT on an unsustainable financial path. They’ll be out of reserves by the end of FY2014, and out of money entirely by FY2017.

MT has a responsibility to taxpayers and riders to stay in service and should negotiate hard for a better and sustainable contract. If it can’t come to an agreement with GGT, it should find another provider. But both GGT and MT should keep in mind the benefits of a unified transit service for the county. For the sake of Marinites, I hope they can make this partnership work.

Mid-Week Links: Plaid

Now that Fairfax and Sausalito are cracking down on cyclists violating stop-signs, perhaps it’s important to ask whether current law is the best law. A bicycle, after all, is absolutely not a car – it can stop faster, gives a better field of view, and is much more efficient when moving than when stopped. Idaho allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, to great effect. California ought to pass the same.

Marin County

  • Marin and Sonoma both dropped state parks from their park taxes after $54 million was found in the state parks department’s coffers. While Sonoma’s plan is dead, Marin’s tax plan would go to county open space instead. (Planetizen, IJ, Press Democrat)
  • Larkspur and Tiburon are both pondering library expansions, though residents in both communities wonder if the proposed buildings will be too large for the demand. (IJ)
  • HOV lanes in Novato are now open to the driving public, ensuring easy driving for a little bit until traffic catches up with capacity. (IJ)
  • A permanent farmer’s market, a roundabout, and other improvements will come to the Civic Center under a plan recently approved by the Board. Unfortunately, it’s at odds with the SMART Station Area Plan for the Christmas Tree Lot just south of the station, which calls for 4-5 story residential and retail. Planning and design for the improvements will cost about $2 million. (IJ)
  • And…: Construction has begun on SMART’s railcars. Delivery is expected in about a year. (Patch) … Novato will convert a city-owned building into art studios for around $100,000. (IJ) … A West Marin ecotopia could be shut down for running afoul building regulations, but its builders pledge to carry on. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Projections of growth are so often wrong, but they always inform whether we build new freeway lanes or rail lines or whatever. There must be a better way. (Strong Towns)
  • Activists accuse Veolia Transportation, which operates Sonoma County Transit, of human rights violations and want the county to investigate. Veolia’s parent company operates bus service between Israel and West Bank settlements. (Press Democrat)
  • MTC will study a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax on Bay Area drivers to raise money for roads and transit. The tax hasn’t gone anywhere in other jurisdictions, but boosters are optimistic a VMT would be an answer to the Bay Area’s financial woes. (Mercury News)
  • Some Chicago designers want you to help create the perfect transit app. Not only would it tell you how to get where you’re going with the schedule, it would give you real-time arrival information, allow stopovers for coffee or errands, interface with your calendar, remind you to bring an umbrella, and more. (Co.Design)

The Toll

  • You’ll notice I have this new section for the death and injury toll on the roads in Marin and Sonoma as reported by local news outlets. Why? Because in the first three months of this year, 7,280 people were killed on the road in the US, doing nothing more than living their lives. It’s the least we can do to report on the human cost of our road-centered policies in this little corner of the country. (Atlantic Cities)
  • A Tiburon man drove onto a sidewalk to hit a pedestrian whose plaid jacket he didn’t like. The suspected driver, Eugene Thomas Anderson, has been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. (IJ)
  • Three cyclists were struck by drivers in Santa Rosa this week, though one driver claims to have lost control of her vehicle. None suffered more than moderate injuries. Separately, a driver suffered moderate injuries after running his car off the road. (Press Democrat)
  • In Marin, two people were slightly injured in a bizarre two-crash incident in Novato. Another driver drove off the road in San Rafael, giving herself minor injuries. A driver couldn’t negotiate a turn and so rolled his van about 150 feet down a West Marin hill, resulting in minor injuries to himself and one of his four passengers. Lastly, a driver lost control of his truck in Larkspur, crashing it into a nearby townhouse. The driver and passenger sufferend moderate injuries. (IJ, Twin Cities Times)

Bad Ideas in Sacramento County

These really aren’t the same thing. Photos by road_less_trvled and Brave New Films

Sacramento has done great things lately. A new light-rail line extends from downtown to a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood near the river. A strong Sustainable Communities Strategy was recently approved by the region. Smart growth is taking root in the sprawling region.

Unfortunately, old habits die hard. The Sacramento Bee reports that Sacramento County supervisors approved a smart-growth redesign of Watt Avenue, an aging, low-density commercial strip, and immediately granted a waiver for Wal-Mart to move in to the very heart of the corridor, the part closest to the city and closest to light rail.

Staff argued that Wal-Mart would generate jobs, provide access to cheap groceries, and help catalyze growth in the area. Supervisors reportedly were only concerned with pedestrian safety and not the store’s traffic or the store’s design. It also apparently didn’t occur to them that supermarkets would move in on their own as the corridor developed.

I can’t comment on the wisdom of a smart-growth corridor extending in a thin, four-mile line through some fairly suburban neighborhoods far from the central city, though at first glance the land-use and parking requirements don’t seem particularly progressive. What I can comment on is placing a suburban-style, car-centric Wal-Mart where the supervisors want to encourage anything but driving.

In short, it’s crazy, a poison pill.  Nobody likes to walk by a strip mall parking lot.  When was the last time you walked next to a 10-acre parking lot on a summer day? What about walking through it to get to the bus?  Now imagine doing that in a Central Valley summer.  I shudder to consider it.  If Sacramento County wants to build a walkable, transit-oriented corridor, they need to stop granting approvals for projects that stand in direct contradiction to their goals.

It’s like saying you want to lose weight, but you still let yourself have McDonald’s for lunch every day. Your goal is at odds with your actions, and any progress you might make will be slowed or stalled entirely because of it.

One of Wal-Mart’s planned DC stores. Image from JBG.

Department stores, the classier ancestors of the big-box genre of stores, were once an integral part of walking around downtown. Macy’s, now more associated with the mall, even throws a parade in New York on Thanksgiving to celebrate its connection with that most urban of communities.  Wal-Mart is trying to recapture that feel in Washington, DC, building urban-style stores with apartments and offices above and smaller shops along the sides.  The parking lot is an underground garage.

Wal-Mart, in other words, didn’t need a waiver from the density minimums and could have anchored the smart-growth corridor with a smart-growth store. The Sacramento County Board and staff should have pushed for something better, but instead they will be saddled with a strip mall in a place that is supposed to be the opposite.

Thankfully, Marin’s governments are a bit more savvy, and Marin’s residents are much more wary, than to allow such a fiasco. What we do allow, though, are sprawl projects that take life out of our downtowns. Hanna Ranch, for instance, could have been a major boost to downtown Novato had the city been willing to push the project there. Instead, it will be a greenfield sprawl development beyond that giant dead-end called Vintage Oaks.

While we draw up new general plans, our governments and people need to keep in mind their more philosophical goals: to protect the character of each town, to strengthen and preserve town centers, and to focus what growth we do allow in ways that will do those things. Otherwise, we risk just the sort of near-sighted foolishness exemplified in Sacramento County’s decision, and that would be a tragedy.

Mid-Week Links: Progress

July 4th, 2009

by Brendan Landis

Marin County

  • Contract negotiations between Marin Transit and GGT are starting to pay off, though a timeline for finishing the new contract is still elusive. The MT board delayed a decision on Monday, deciding to let the negotiations play out. (IJ)
  • Structures built in the SMART right-of-way, i.e., stations, will not be required to go through the local design review process thanks to legislation introduced by Assemblyman Michael Allen and passed by the state legislature. They will, however, still be subject to local zoning ordinances. (Pacific Sun)
  • The new federal transportation bill, recently signed into law, will likely cost Marin some $500,000 in Safe Routes to School funding. Local sources of funding means the program will stay alive in the county, but with rather less robust finances. There is, of course, much more to the bill. (IJ, Streetsblog)
  • The Marin County election season is heating up again, with Sausalito’s hand-slapping Mike Kelly retiring after eight years on the council being the biggest news so far. In all, 28 positions around the county will be on the ballot come November. (IJ)
  • The venerable anchor-out community of Sausalito holds some of the most colorful, despondent, independent, thoroughly old-school Marinites in the county. With the America’s Cup around the corner, some of the anchor-outs wonder if their time is up. (Bohemian)
  • Novato’s new city office building broke ground on Tuesday, signalling an end to one of the major controversies swirling around the community, though don’t count on hearing the end of it at council meetings. (IJ)
  • Since the Pacifics began playing at Albert Park, there have been few problems, despite the vociferous arguments made during the process to approve the team’s use of the field. (IJ)
  • And…: GGT apparently runs unscheduled ferries between Sausalito and San Francisco to pick up bikers. Why not put them on the books? (IJ) … San Rafael touts the recent HOV freeway widening as consistent with its Climate Change Action Plan. (News Pointer) … Give your ideas for the Larkspur’s SMART Station Area Plan this Monday at 6:30pm. You already know my idea. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Plan Bay Area has been criticized as too oppressive and too dictatorial to communities that believe all development is character-destroying development. In trying to ameliorate these concerns, PBA may have become too weak to actually achieve its goals. (Underground Science via Google Cache)
  • The legal hurdles for California High Speed Rail got a little bit shorter this week. Five lawsuits are in settlement, and other opponents have been cowed by the project’s recent victory in the state legislature. (Mercury News)
  • Downtown Phoenix, Arizona, really isn’t that great, but it doesn’t have to be. Shade, density, non-car connections, and a grocery store would all make the core of that desert metropolis more livable. (TDG)
  • Demand for walkable neighborhoods is at an all-time high. Riding high on the trend are new urban cores like Bellevue, Washington or Silver Spring, Maryland, which have retrofitted their suburban downtowns into something much more traditionally urban. (Fiscal Times)

The Toll

  • A 60-year-old bicyclist was sent to the hospital last night after a crash involving a car driver in downtown San Rafael. The driver stayed on the scene. (IJ)
  • Jessie Garcia died Saturday while driving in Santa Rosa. A vengeful driver struck his car instead of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, which she had been aiming for, causing his vehicle to flip and burst into flames. That driver, Heather Holmes, has been charged with second-degree murder. (Press Democrat)

Have a tip? Want to contribute? Email me at theGreaterMarin [at] gmail.com.

Some solid recommendations for Tiburon

Tiburon

photo by Yun Huang Yong

Marin Transit (MT) recently began to study how to improve service on the Tiburon Peninsula. I addressed the current situation and the various options in a previous post I wrote a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into them here.  Now, though, MT staff have released their draft recommendations for comment, and I’m extremely impressed.  Nearly all of my recommendations were taken, or were arrived upon separately.  There were some changes, however, so let’s look over the highlights.

Item 1: Implement a Tiburon Community Shuttle program.

The route will run between downtown Tiburon and Strawberry every 20-30 minutes, timed with the ferry, and run between 6:00am to 10:30pm.  The last run of the day would run through Mill Valley to Marin City.

Though I like the service span and frequency, MT proposes deviating the route eastbound from Strawberry.  Going east, the bus would serve Belvedere Drive through Strawberry, hitting a currently unused bus stop at Belvedere & Ricardo while bypassing the eastbound stop at Tiburon & N Knoll.  Splitting service like this is strange and makes for a worse transit system in general.  Bus stops should be paired with each other wherever possible, even when the geometry of turning around makes that difficult.  Residents living on Knoll probably won’t need to go to Strawberry; they’ll probably need to head to Tiburon, and need to take the bus in that direction. Diverting the bus would mean an extra half-mile walk for them to the nearest eastbound bus stop.

Strawberry residents face the same problem, but only one new bus stop would be served, and it wouldn’t be far from another, at Tiburon & Belvedere.  The only way this would be of use would be if there is a minimal pause at Strawberry, allowing N Knoll travelers to ride west to Strawberry before continuing their eastbound journey to Tiburon.

The projected cost for the new route would be around $473,000, down from $629,000 for the current routing.

Item 4: Make Blue & Gold Public

The ferry route in Tiburon is vital to the health of the transit system and, though it should be better integrated into the transit system, it is largely working well.  Blue & Gold is a privately run company with higher-than-average fares and a parking fee. Despite that, the ferry runs a profit and sees 625 passengers per day ply the route between Tiburon and The City.

MT staff recommend turning the route over to a public agency, either the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) or GGT.  I dislike the idea.  Though it would improve the amount of service on the route, what is currently offered is well-used and well-liked.  I fear that GGT or WETA would make the parking free and lower fares while increasing service, ensuring an ongoing operating deficit.  Though it may attract more riders, free parking would also attract more traffic onto Tiburon Boulevard and put pressure on the town to build more parking in its already parking-saturated core.

Better would be to work with the system in place.  Blue & Gold should arrange with WETA and MTC to be part of the 511.org system, take Clipper, and still operate as a for-profit company.  Any additional service should be operated by Blue & Gold and paid for with an operating subsidy from the interested agency.

Items 5 & 7: Improve Connections to Regional Services & Implement Passenger Access and Transfer Improvements.

A very strong recommendation is to improve access to Highway 101 (p 14, PDF). As I wrote, Tiburon’s transit needs to be integrated into the greater transit system of the county, especially to the 101 trunk.  The Tiburon Wye, sadly, is extremely unfriendly for transfers to and from Strawberry or Tiburon.  Though I proposed something of a patch over the issue, to extend the new shuttle route out to a turnaround at Tower Drive, it turns out that Caltrans already has an answer.

For $3 million, Caltrans has some preliminary plans to reposition the bus stops at the Wye so they’re closer to the overpass and won’t require pedestrians to cross the on or off ramps.  At the west side of the freeway, a turnaround would actually allow both surface street and freeway buses to share a single stop, knitting the two services together in a way I hadn’t even thought would be worth proposing.  This is a superb design, and may even allow GGT to cut commuter Route 8.  Rush service at the Wye is good enough that any wait would likely be only a few minutes.

Item 8: Marketing

It will be absolutely necessary to market these new services to the people of Tiburon.  Transit usage is very low on the peninsula, and I suspect people won’t flock to the new service because it just won’t be a viable option for most.  The recommendation is to develop a flyer and to distribute it around the peninsula.  If it’s like any other pamphlet I’ve seen, it will be placed in little displays but rarely taken.

More expensive, but more effective, would be a mass mailing to every household in Strawberry, Tiburon, and Belvedere, but go beyond simply the pamphlet.  Enclosed in each or in a random selection would be a $10 Clipper card and a note encouraging people to try transit.  Only 6.3% of Route 19 riders use Clipper at the moment, so there is a lot of room to grow. If Blue & Gold is interested, it could also include a free round-trip ticket aboard the ferry for a commute.

Many of the tickets and Clipper cards wouldn’t be used, but some of those that do use them would find transit so much easier than they imagined and would become frequent or semi-frequent users.  Boulder, CO, found that giving away transit passes helped build strong transit usage in their bus-only system.  Given the poor connections to 101, MT may want to wait until the system is fully built and the Wye reconstructed before asking people to come on board.

Other Item: Real-Time Arrival

Something particularly exciting, which I’ve pushed for in the past, is the use of a real-time arrival system and signs.  MT wants to place the signs at high ridership stops at Strawberry and Tiburon & Main downtown, as well as in shops near particular stops.  The shops would be especially handy, as it would give riders the ability to get morning coffee while waiting for the bus so they would know exactly when to leave.  The real-time system is online, so people could take to their computers and smart phones to find out when the next bus is arriving and when to leave the house.  Ideally, this system would also include Blue & Gold Ferry departures and arrivals.

MT should ensure the system is included in its marketing materials, as GGT-operated routes don’t have real-time arrival systems yet and so would likely be unfamiliar to casual users.

In Sum…

MT has some solid recommendations.  Though some need improvement, such as those for Blue & Gold, but most are good or better than I even though were under consideration, as with the Tiburon Wye.  After reading the draft, I’m highly optimistic about the chances of transit on the Tiburon Peninsula.

Mid-Week Links: A Bit Short

Marin County Civic Center

photo by Michael Arrighi

Welcome new readers! Unfortunately, you’re only going to get a bit of the typical Mid-Week (or is it End-Week?) Links. I’ve fallen ill, and a computer screen is the last thing I need to stare at. But, over the course of the week and a bit this evening I’ve scraped some links together showing a bit of what’s happening in Marin and around the world.

Got a tip for a link or a story? Want to become a contributor yourself? Email me at theGreaterMarin {at} gmail.com.

Marin County

  • Opponents of Blithedale Terrace have hired a lawyer and consultants to fight the project to the bitter end, saying the 20 planned units would mean a traffic nightmare in Mill Valley and are just “far too many” units. Unless developer Phil Richardson has something up his sleeve, the controversy and litigation will likely go on for years. (Herald)
  • After an arduous remodel of Red Hill Shopping Center and mounting concerns over chain stores, San Anselmo’s council is weighing whether to ban or more closely regulate such businesses. (IJ)
  • Fairfax police are cracking down on cyclists running stop signs and stop lights, saying they pose a danger to pedestrians. Sausalito is following suit, saying they also pose a danger to “other vehicles”, though I can’t see a car getting much more than dents from a bicycle. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Delhi’s Bus Rapid Transit system is under threat after a court ruled that the bus-only lanes must be opened for mixed vehicle traffic, which would essentially kill the program.  While car use has exploded among India’s elite, travel in the city is still dominated by transit and foot. (NYT)
  • A $42.5 million freeway project is in jeopardy now that Petaluma lost its redevelopment funds. The Old Redwood Highway Interchange project would build HOV lanes and a new interchange in the city. (Press Democrat)
  • Driverless trains are a fantastic boon to mass rail transit systems, but Americans have been surprisingly lax in adopting the technology. (Atlantic Cities)
  • Bike-share in the Bay Area has been delayed yet again, this time until January. Though it’s not clear why BAAQMD and Alta are delaying again, but the sheer geography of the system seems to be playing a role. (Streetsblog)
  • The fires that burned uncontrollably in Colorado this year and often burn in the West aren’t destructive just because of forestry practices. Suburban sprawl means people are spread thinly across the landscape, putting more lives at risk. (Billings Gazette)
  • New development doesn’t mean ridding a neighborhood of the old but rather retrofitting it so new buildings share in some of that history. My neighborhood in Washington, DC, is undergoing a dramatic change, but bits are being saved for just that reason. (NPR)

High-Speed Rail Whiplash

The current business plan.

Given the evolving and pressing nature of the California High-Speed Rail story, Mid-Week Links will have to wait until tomorrow.

High-speed rail dominated the news and blogosphere this week, and for good reason. The California Legislature authorized – barely – releasing $8 billion in bond money so the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) could begin construction in the Central Valley. Federal Secretary of Tranportation Ray LaHood applauded the vote, as did transportation advocates, as a step in the right direction for the state and country, though acknowledging there was still another $60 billion to find.

Project opponents pointed to a lawsuit filed the day of the vote by one-time HSR booster Quentin Kopp, who argued the current business plan, which blends high-speed trains with lower-speed commuter rail, is illegal and “mangled”, but it didn’t do much to dampen advocate’s spirits.

The real bomb was let off the day after the vote.  The Los Angeles Times reported that French high-speed rail operator SNCF had approached CHSRA with a plan to privately finance and build the state’s rail line for a fraction of the cost, though along the I-5 corridor rather than the 99 as currently planned. SNCF, the report claimed, had been declined.  Though Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic had leaked an earlier memo from 2009 on the subject that seems to vindicate CHSRA, the Times piece dealt with a later proposal from 2010.

Steven Smith at Market Urbanism goes into more detail, quoting pro-HSR, anti-CHSRA activist David Schonbrunn that SNCF already actually had private backing in hand, and an anonymous source said the backing was from “major, major US banks”, though wouldn’t go into specifics. Rather than listen to the SNCF report, Smith’s source and Schonbrunn claim it was dismissed out of hand. Construction firm Parsons Brinckerhoff remained at the helm of CHSRA’s planning.

Smith speculates CHSRA stuck with the 99 plan for political reasons. For one thing, there are a number of employees working for both CHSRA and Parsons, and it would have been in Parsons’ interest to quash the SNCF plan. Another reason is the strong political clout of the eastern Central Valley. Though SNCF had planned spur lines and urban edge stations, located like airports, backers had pushed strongly for including the Central Valley’s population centers, and an I-5 alignment, while cheaper, wouldn’t have achieved the desired political result.

Alon Levy of Pedestrian Observations approached from a different angle. Not much is known about the SNCF plan, but we do know the cost – $38 billion – and the alignment change – from 99 to existing rights-of-way along I-5.  The alignment change alone, he writes, cannot possibly make up the difference between today’s $68 billion and the proposal’s $38 billion.  Rather, most of the cost savings would have to have come from better cost control, thanks to management of the project by an experienced European firm.

Levy’s takeaway, like Smith’s, is political:

The other lesson we can learn from this episode is political, regarding cost escalations and strategic misrepresentation. Too many political transit supporters downplay the issue. LightRailNow claims that a cost escalation that occurs before construction starts is not a cost escalation, but just a more accurate cost estimate; Robert Cruickshank did not quite say the same when the 2010 business plan for CAHSR revealed costs had doubled, but came close to it by describing the plan as more careful and thorough. In reality, large bombshell reports shortly after money has been obligated are a hallmark of secretive, untrustworthy planning, precisely the kind likeliest to lie about costs.

It’s likely the story will continue to unfold as the weeks wear on.

The story from Smith and Levy often spills onto Twitter, so if you’re into that kind of thing be sure to follow them @MarketUrbanism and @alonlevy @alon_levy. You can also follow me @theGreaterMarin, though I mostly leave the HSR story to them.

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