Mid-Week Links: Par-tay!

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A lively time was had by all at Fairfax’s first-ever Streets for People. Photo by pixtpost

As well, I’d like to point your attention to the new link, My Bay Area Ideas, a transit blog by Marinite Anthony Nachor, who you may hear more of. He joins the North Bay blogosphere as the second blog about transit and urban affairs. The Greater Marin’s masthead has been updated accordingly. I’m excited to read what he has to say.

With a steadily deteriorating commentariat on Patch and the IJ, it was only a matter of time before some of it started slipping into our fledgling forum. To head it off, I’ve implemented a new comments policy that I shamelessly adapted from Greater Greater Washington. Regular commenters have yet to even come close to crossing the line, but one-offs on the FAQ have been less than helpful and I’d rather start a good commenting culture now than wait for it to get bad.

Marin County

  • Fairfax hosted over 1,000 people at its first-ever Streets for People event last Sunday. Not quite a street fair, not quite a simple road closure, the street became the scene of performances, children playing, and neighbors chatting – just like streets are supposed to be. (IJ; photos on Patch)
  • Tomorrow, August 31, GGT is moving bus stops (PDF) for Routes 54, 56, 58, 72, 72X, 74, 76 from Fremont Street to accommodate Transbay Terminal construction, though they’ll be back on Tuesday. On another note, the PDF they made for the announcement looks printable; is this part of their steady improvement in communication? Let us know in the comments if you see it around. (GGT)
  • GGT is also running a modified bus and ferry schedule this weekend, so be sure to check it before you go. (SF Ferry Riders)
  • And…: Want to live in your own San Anselmo mansion for $800 per month? (Ross Valley Reporter) … More free parking in Sausalito. (IJ) … The cutest transit video you’ll see this week – man proposes on a Caltrain, where he and his girlfriend met. (ABC)

The Greater Marin

  • The highest barrier to bus ridership is poor information, and that barrier stretches higher still when bus systems run low frequencies. (Greater Greater Washington)
  • Healdsburg limits the number of new housing units to 30 per year, but the town is starting to wondering whether that leisurely pace is too slow. (Press Democrat)
  • The Swedish village of Jakriborg is small, planned, quaint, car-free, and only 12.5 acres. How many Jakriborgs could fit into a typical Marin park-and-ride? And how much money do transit agencies lose when they build a park-and-ride instead of a Jakriborg? (Cap’n Transit)
  • California passed two major bicycle reform bills, the first implementing a three-foot passing law and the second streamlining environmental review for bike lane projects. It’s a good week to be a cyclist in California. (CBC, Streetsblog)
  • Americans gouge themselves on infrastructure costs by creating inefficient work rules, restrictive bidding processes, and putting contractors in charge of controlling their own costs. It’s not just bad for transit; it’s bad for everyone. (Bloomberg)
  • Slums aren’t all awful, and are often better than the countryside people move from. So why shouldn’t cities and countries invest in making them actual places instead of just clearing them out? (Foreign Policy)

The Toll

This week, three people were killed, including a baby; a man, a woman, and three children were seriously injured; another woman suffered moderate injuries; and an unknown number suffered other injuries. The week prior, I failed to report another man who was seriously injured.

  • A man riding a Vespa catapulted himself off Highway 101 at the San Rafael Skyway, falling 40 feet onto Second Street below. He suffered major injuries and the dog he was traveling with was killed. (IJ)
  • A woman driving a car hit a man on a motorcycle in Cotati, leaving him in a ditch with major injuries. The driver fled the scene and is still at large. The crash occurred on the 19th. (Press Democrat)
  • Though just north of Sonoma County, this crash bears reporting. Three people were killed and four injured after a southbound driver drifted into the northbound lanes of Highway 101. In the southbound car were four passengers – a man, a woman, an infant, and a four-year-old girl. All but the girl were killed, and the survivor suffered major injuries. The driver that struck them, along with her two child passengers, were injured as well. (Press Democrat)
  • A driver slammed her truck through a Sausalito 7-11, but luckily nobody was injured. (IJ) … A number of drivers crashed into one another on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge yesterday morning. Further details are unknown. (IJ) … Tiburon’s plaid-hating driver pleads guilty to assault with his car, gets six months in prison. (SFist) … A woman was moderately injured by a driver after she ran a stop sign on her bike in Santa Rosa. (Press Democrat)

Is it Time for San Rafael Council Districts?

San Rafael on a Full Moon Night

San Rafael on a Full Moon Night, by fksr

The recent San Rafael City Council vote on the Civic Center Station Area Plan went the way I would have liked, but given the objections of neighbors I’m surprised the vote was unanimous. Neighborhood objections such as this need a debate to ensure all voices really are heard, but the current system doesn’t serve that need. Perhaps it’s time for San Rafael to consider a district-based council.

Every town council, city council, and board in Marin, barring the Board of Supervisors itself, is elected at-large. While such a system makes sense for small towns, larger cities like San Rafael have distinct neighborhoods with distinct goals, opinions, cultures and needs. Gerstle Park has concerns about noise from Albert Field, the Canal worries about street lighting, downtown is concerned about crime and historic preservation, and North San Rafael is concerned about development.

Each of these areas needs a champion for their cause, and the best way to do that is through city council districts.

Santa Rosa is considering just that. Advocates cite long-standing geographic and ethnic inequities in the seven-member council. For example, Santa Rosa is 30% Latino but has an all-white council only one Latino member. All members hail from the eastern half of the city, five from the northeast. This arrangement has persisted for at least 20 years. The Latino member, Mayor Ernesto Olivares, was only elected in 2008, and the geographic arrangement has persisted for at least 20 years.

In San Rafael, the situation is similar. Downtown and the Canal have no representation on the council. East San Rafael went 20 years before a councilmember from that area, Peacock Gap’s Andrew McCullough, was elected. I don’t know if the Canal has ever had a home-grown councilmember. In a city where close to a third of the population is minority, McCullough is the only minority councilmember, being of Filipino-American descent.

More importantly, tying members to districts brings attention and resources to those needs that may otherwise be overlooked and allows neighborhoods to hold their representatives accountable. Richard Hall, a new commenter on TGM and strong opponent of the Civic Center SAP, might viably challenge a North San Rafael councilmember if he were able to campaign in just his neighborhood. The SAP could be a wedge issue for them.

But the two North San Rafael councilmembers, Damon Connolly of Mont Marin (the neighborhood between Northgate and Marinwood) and Gary Phillips of Terra Linda, are elected at-large. In the large pond of San Rafael, Hall likely wouldn’t be able to use the SAP as a wedge issue or to use Connolly and Phillips’ votes against them. Instead, the issue is likely to never get a fair shake in an election where his neighbors could actually say whether they support the plan or not.

Opponents of Santa Rosa’s district proposal argue the result will be a balkanized, divided city. Geographic rivalries would flare up and councilmembers would only look out for their own district’s needs at the expense of the city as a whole. Electing members at large, they argue, promotes consensus and comity between residents and neighborhoods.

Yet the history of divided, unruly councils is long in Marin. For years, the Fairfax Town Council was a truly contentious body but has recently returned to civility. Just this year, Sausalito’s council literally came to blows in the hand-slap heard ‘round the county.  All the while, the district-based Board of Supervisors was a picture of calm and unity. It’s not districts that divide a city council, it’s rivalries and scant leadership.

Still, if San Rafael does pursue districts, it could keep its unique at-large mayoral seat, ensuring at least one member of the Council will represent the city as a whole.

As San Rafael continues to grow, the needs and cultures of its various neighborhoods will deepen and diversify. Ensuring adequate representation on the council and fair consideration of issues during elections is vital to the legitimacy of city governance and the health of city debate. It’s time to consider something new.

#NorthBayTransit Picks Up the Slack

I’ve publically berated Golden Gate Transit for ignoring its Twitter accounts, leaving riders in the dark about service changes, enhancements, bus bridges, late buses, full ferries, and everything else a rider needs to know.  Sonoma County Transit is worse, as it has no social media presence whatsoever. Well, it’s time to change that.

As of last week, #NorthBayTransit will fill the gap for transit users in Sonoma and Marin. Schedule changes, stop changes, announcements, and all the rest will have this hashtag attached. It will transcend operator, so all eight transit agencies in the region (nine if you count GGT’s buses and ferries separately, ten if you include SMART) will have a one-stop-shop for all transit information.

The idea was birthed on Twitter with @mikesonn, while we complained about GGT’s press release-heavy communication style. Why not also tweet a brief description and a link? He asked that I keep him in the loop about what was happening, and I wondered whether I should keep everyone in the loop. The easiest way to keep tweets on a subject is a hashtag, and #NorthBayTransit was born.

Since I’m not on the ground in the North Bay, he offered to keep an eye out for unannounced changes in San Francisco. John Murphy (@murphstahoe) will tweet about issues in Sonoma. Meanwhile, I’ll get out whatever I can whenever I see it and push transit agencies to adopt the hashtag.

But we can’t do this on our own. We need your help to keep the feed up to date and active. If you see a problem, get bumped from a ferry, or have news to share, tag it. Retweet the agency feeds when they actually write something and tag those, too. @caltrain, a Twitter account updated by users, only works as well as it does because of the dedication of riders. You, the North Bay’s transit ridership, are the key to success.

I’ll see you on Twitter.

#NorthBayTransit

Mid-Week Links: Streaks

Bicycling has exploded everywhere in the past five years, and every time I go down Miracle Mile I see at least a few bicyclists en route. In the 1990s, they would be a rare sight indeed. In San Francisco, families are turning to the bike as a means of moving kids, groceries, and the rest, and it largely works. But the rapid expansion of bicycling has not been met with similarly rapid expansion of bicycling infrastructure. Advocates in more urban areas, such as San Francisco, insist this is the way forward, while guerrilla infrastructure shows just how easy it can be to make a bike lane, and therefore a street, safe.  Miracle Mile is wide enough for a protected bike lane, and Marin is an ideal place for others. Perhaps we should try, too.

Apologies for the spotty update schedule. Personal scheduling made it impossible to devote as much time as needed for a good blog, so I’ve been on something of an unplanned hiatus. But, much happened over the past two weeks, and here’s the best of it.

Marin County

  • Marin Transit ran slightly less of a deficit in FY2011-2012 than expected, but budget crunch isn’t stopping minor capital improvement projects or expanding its volunteer driver service for the elderly. Meanwhile, contract negotiations with GGT are going “really well” and are expected to be completed by the end of the month. (IJ)
  • SMART plans to spend $12 million to create “quiet zones” where its trains won’t have to blow their horn while crossing streets. If the district had chosen to operate a transit line instead of a mixed passenger/freight railroad, it wouldn’t need to spend the money in the first place. (Systemic Failure)
  • Despite neighbor opposition, San Rafael unanimously approved the Civic Center Station Area Plan. The plan, however, would have neighbor concerns attached to the report to inform debate over future development in the area. (IJ)
  • San Rafael owes California almost $1.6 million in redevelopment agency funds, at least according to the state. San Rafael and other cities are protesting the bill which they say unfairly excludes bond obligations. (IJ)
  • Grady Ranch is apparently zoned for 240 affordable housing units, though it would be a sprawl project run amok, far from the freeway, amenities, transit, and anything resembling “walkability.” (IJ)
  • Sausalito councilmembers Carolyn Ford and Mike “Hand-Slapping” Kelly will not run for reelection this year, leaving only one incumbent – Linda Pfeifer – in the race. She will be joined by six others in a fight for three at-large seats on the famously contentious body. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: Patch wonders if distracted pedestrians are victims of natural selection when they get hit by traffic… GGT is moving some bus stops in North Beach to make way for Central Subway construction. (GGT)… Fairfax will hold Streets for People this Sunday, 12-4. (Patch)

The Greater Marin

  • Easier transfers, more direct routes, and shorter headways are in store for Napa’s transit-riding public. NCPTA wants to double ridership on its VINE bus system to 1.2 million trips per year and thinks this may be the way to do it. (Napa Valley Register)
  • California has another $43 million it can spend on any transportation project it likes. The US Department of Transportation released the money from unspent earmarks as part of a national $470 million initiative. Whether Caltrans will spend that money wisely, of course, is anyone’s guess. (Sacramento Bee)
  • The presidential race is absolutely a study in contrasts, and transportation policy is no exception. In short, the Obama Administration wants to dramatically boost spending on transportation, though whether Congress will allow him to do so is another story. A hypothetical Romney Administration, in contrast, would dramatically shrink federal spending in the sector, and would likely have a Congress amenable to such a plan. (Transportation Politic)
  • And…: Clipper Cards to cost $3 after September 1. (Sacramento Bee)… Santa Rosa reconnects its grid with a new 6th Street underpass. (Press Democrat)

The Toll

Over the past two weeks on our transportation system, one man died, eight people were seriously injured and 12 people suffered minor injuries. The details:

  • Scott Reyna died after crashing his truck on Highway 101 near Petaluma early Monday morning. The crash caused a huge backup later in the commute, and subsequent crashes in the resulting backup sent a woman to the hospital with minor injuries. Scott was 43. (Press Democrat)
  • That same morning, another man seriously injured himself while driving under the influence on Highway 101 near Marinwood. (Patch)
  • A bicyclist, Toraj Soltani, was chased down and struck by an elderly driver last Thursday in Santa Rosa. Soltani tried to avoid the driver by moving to a golf course, but the driver pursued off-road and ran him down, inflicting serious injuries on Soltani. 81-year-old Harry Smith was later arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. (Press Democrat, IJ)
  • On Sunday, a man drove north in the south-bound lanes of Highway 101. Eventually, he struck another vehicle near Cotati, inflicting major injuries to himself as well as the driver and passenger of the other vehicle. (Patch)
  • A woman injured herself and the four children in her car when she crashed into the back of a parked truck in Novato. Thankfully, all injuries were minor. (IJ)
  • A man hit a woman with his car in downtown San Rafael. The woman suffered pelvic injuries as a result, and the driver was arrested for driving on a suspended license. (IJ)
  • And…: Someone hit a telephone pole on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in San Anselmo, but no report of injuries. (Patch)… A 2009 bike-on-pedestrian crash in Sonoma goes to trial. (Press Democrat)… A man seriously injured himself while lane-splitting on a motorcycle in Novato. (IJ)… A man suffered minor injuries when his garbage truck crashed into a gym in Novato; no word on whether he had control of the vehicle he was driving. (Advance)… Five people were injured in a three-car pileup in Rohnert Park. (Press Democrat)… A cyclist injured himself in Santa Rosa. He was trying to avoid a car that apparently had the right-of-way. (Press Democrat)

Street Greenery is Better than Thought

As it turns out, street greenery is even better at reducing pollution than thought. The research that I had found for last week’s post showed greenery can filter out some of the worst particles but only up to 8% of the total pollutant plume. New research just released shows that green walls, when employed in an “urban canyon” environment, can filter out up to 60% of the particulate matter in diesel pollution. That, coincidentally, will include the SMART train.

The urban canyon environment is when buildings go up on either side of the street and form single walls interrupted only by cross-streets. San Rafael’s Fourth Street is a good example of this in Marin, and San Francisco’s Market Street is a superb example in any context. These canyons create their own wind environments, circulating air up and then down and then up again in a vertical circulatory pattern.

Green walls are either plants growing out of the wall, like vertical gardens, or plants growing down walls, like ivy from planter boxes or wisteria from the ground. If these walls line a part of the urban canyon, the wind patterns will run polluted air through leaves multiple times, allowing the air to be filtered again and again.

Cities should actively encourage green walls to capture this effect, and SMART should plan for it where trains will run through residential areas. In places where buildings may rise above the freeway, as in the Downtown San Rafael Station Area Plan, green walls could be especially helpful in filtering the worst part of the air. Any investment in greenery for health reasons will be best put here. Similarly, where the freeway runs at ground level, ivy should be encouraged to grow on the sound walls.

As an added bonus, greenery cuts down on urban noise. Given how loud both the freeway is and the SMART train will be, encouraging leafy walls will be able to make our city streets that much more livable.

Investing in greenery is the single most cost-effective way to reduce pollutants and keep our cities healthy. With the new construction and higher-density zoning slated for areas up and down the 101 corridor, city councils and planning agencies need to take it seriously as more than just environmental greenwashing.

Freeways Don’t Need to be a Housing Show-Stopper

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20 by Phil Philms, on Flickr

It’s common sense that living near a freeway isn’t healthy. The pollution from the cars and grit from the roadway make for what most would term a wholly unpleasant experience. Unfortunately, the only places for infill development, not to mention quite a few SMART stations, are near Highway 101. Before any post-SMART buildings are built, communities in Marin and Sonoma need to take measures to mitigate these negative health effects, or we’ll simply be building health problems for the future.

Roadway pollution is almost entirely from tailpipe emissions, and most of the health effects are from particulate material, that brown smoke most recognizably seen coming out of large truck exhaust pipes.  It’s nasty stuff (PDF), not only because the shape of the particles increases the risk of asthma and lung cancer but because they carry heavy metals, which can contribute to diminished brain formation in children.  Gases, such as carbon monoxide, are less hazardous to the health of nearby residents.

These particulates, at least when they come from a freeway, are concentrated within 200 feet of the road, though they are measurable up to half a mile away during the day and 1.5 miles away during the early morning hours.  In Marin, that means a huge portion of the county lives with 101’s pollution: all of San Rafael, most of Novato, Greenbrae, Mill Valley, Corte Madera and Larkspur, Marin City, and Sausalito lives within the freeway’s pollution plume. Only Ross Valley and West Marin don’t need to deal with the problem, though arterial roads generate their own plumes.

Within that 200 foot buffer, though, is the most danger, and the most opportunity to cut pollution.  Solid barriers, such as sound walls, send the pollution upward, dispersing it but still leaving high concentrations near the freeway.  Plant barriers (PDF) also send a plume upward, but much less pollution reaches the areas near the freeway. Instead, they collect the particulates on leaves and act as natural filters.  Using both solid barriers and plant barriers, of course, yields better results than using only one.

Practically, this means that, wherever pollution is a concern, local government and Caltrans should try to plant trees and build walls to contain and filter out the pollutants.

Another tool in our air pollution mitigation toolbox is building design. Most people spend most of their time inside. When discussing pollutants, it’s ultimately about how the pollution gets into apartments or offices. Most obviously, plants can be grown on rooftops and on the sides of buildings to filter pollutants in concert with whatever is next to the freeway. Inside the building, the county can require air filters.

Air filters for freeway pollution are effective. Most particulates can be filtered with specialized HVAC systems that, though they run upwards of $700 per apartment unit per year to operate, though yield an estimated $2,100 in health care savings annually.  These systems are required in San Francisco for developments near freeways and are a logical step for Marin to take. The county might go the extra step to subsidize the filters for affordable units included in market-rate developments.  However, these don’t filter out ultrafine particles, which constitute most of the particulates in freeway pollution. Laboratory-quality HEPA filters are even more expensive than San Francisco’s standard, but not much more, and could be encouraged through subsidy or required by law.

Exposure could be further limited by encouraging office development closest to the freeway.  The buildings, along with rooftop gardens, would act as a pollution wall for residences further back.

In short, while air pollution is a major concern for building new residences along the freeway, it should not be a show-stopper. Building higher up the valleys or sprawling outward in other parts of the region will only make traffic and pollution worse. The North Bay’s governments need to make mitigation part of their building codes before any more major developments are built if they want to get ahead of the curve. It will save them money in the long-run and will make their new communities far more livable than they would be otherwise.

Mid-Week Links: Area Plans

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Pre-development North San Rafael. Image from Marin History Museum.

Marin County

  • The Larkspur SMART station should be moved, at least according to attendees of a Station Area Plan workshop. While the town can’t do much to change the station’s location, the delay in that leg of the system means it could be moved to be near the ferry terminal. (Twin Cities)
  • Up the tracks, there is concern brewing that the Civic Center Station Area Plan would bring too much traffic and detract from the iconic Civic Center itself. (Patch)
  • Test results at a number of Bay Area bridges were falsified, according to an internal Caltrans investigation. The Bay Bridge and the Richmond Bridge both were the subject of false testing, though Caltrans is sure the two spans are safe. The Golden Gate Bridge is administered by a separate agency and was not part of the testing. (IJ)
  • Fairfax passed a balanced budget for coming fiscal year. The $7 million plan is bolstered by surging sales tax revenue, thanks to the new Good Earth store, and savings from empty posts, including that of Town Manager. (IJ)
  • Robert Eyler argues for a more reasoned approach to approving new development, one that separates fact from opinion and the interests of a neighborhood from the county at large. (NBBJ)
  • And…: One person thinks former RVSD GM Brett Richards deserves some praise; another thinks the San Rafael Airport rec center absolutely doesn’t. (IJ) … Mill Valley Lumber could be saved. (Pacific Sun) … Highway signs are in the offing for The Village shopping center. (Twin Cities)

The Greater Marin

  • The Richmond refinery fire disrupted a major transportation hub, not to mention a city of over 100,000 people, and residents are pissed. Unfortunately, while other agencies announced service disruptions, GGT was, once again, silent. (SFist)
  • San Franciscans will likely vote on luxury development 8 Washington in November, 2013. Opponents dislike the size, amount of parking, and the fact that it’s for rich people. (SFGate)
  • Preliminary reports on Muni’s all-door boarding experiment show marked increases in speed on some major routes. Before GGT copies its maligned cousin, though, it may want to adopt all-door exiting like every other major transit agency. (Streetsblog)
  • Healdsburg unanimously approved a sprawl project of 28 homes far from the city center. Though the homes aren’t terribly far out, they will be far from the city center and transit. (Press Democrat)
  • If you think you know everything there is to know about Marin’s old streetcars, you might want to find out about Contra Costa’s. The Museum of the San Ramon Valley is putting a number of artifacts on display detailing the history of mass transit in CoCo. The exhibit runs through August 19. (CoCo Times)

The Toll

  • This week: one pedestrian with severe injuries, six drivers or passengers with unspecified or minor injuries, and two crashes with no injuries.
  • The man who died riding a bike in Santa Rosa last week was a PE teacher in town for an educational conference and leaves behind a young family. The intersection where Ruben Hernandez was killed will soon get a stoplight as part of a new development, though it’s unclear if the city council would have done anything otherwise. (Press Democrat)
  • Two drivers hit one other on Highway 101 last Thursday morning. No injuries were reported. (IJ)
  • A driver had a seizure and crashed his SUV into a ravine off Shoreline Highway. The driver was transporting kids to a surfing day camp, but thankfully nobody was injured. (IJ)
  • The driver of an armored vehicle lost control and crashed after nearly being struck by the driver of a horse trailer on Lucas Valley Road. The armored vehicle’s driver was hospitalized, and his passenger was treated at the scene. (IJ)
  • A semi was struck from behind on northbound Highway 101 and its driver lost control, sending the truck into the southbound lanes near Tiburon. The driver suffered minor injuries, though no word on who hit the truck. (IJ)
  • A Porsche (it’s unclear if anyone was driving it or not) hit a woman in Greenbrae after literally going under an SUV. The woman has been hospitalized with serious injuries. (IJ)
  • A drunk driver pulled in front of someone driving a Jeep in Larkfield, causing an accident. One of the drunk driver’s passengers was injured, and the other – a 4 year old girl – was unharmed. No word on the condition of either driver. (Press Democrat)
  • A motorcyclist was injured on Highway 101 in San Rafael last week, though it’s unclear how he was injured or the extent of his injuries. (Patch)

High SMART frequency on the cheap

In response to my analysis of SMART’s potential for double-tracking, commenters Richard Mlynarik and the Drunk Engineer pointed out that other rail lines run high frequency with sidings only and not a full-fledged double track.  SMART, they reasoned, would save a bucketload of cash by building something similar, and they’re right.

At 15 minute headways, SMART will have at most 6 trains going in each direction once it reaches full build-out.  If they stick to precise scheduling, they will pass at 6 predetermined points. Under the current plan, SMART will run 30 minute headways under a similar scheme, with only 3 passing points of 4 miles each. At that 4-mile standard, we would need another 12 miles of track (another 3 sidings) to permit 15 minute frequency.  While my original assumption was for 56.7 miles of construction (70.5 miles minus the 1.8 mile Puerto Suello segment minus 12 miles of passing track), with this dramatically reduced need for new tracks we can shrink the cost by a similar margin. Rather than cost $284 million, 12 miles of track will only cost $60 million. That’s much more reasonable.

California regulations treat sidings differently than regular two-track systems, and pegs the minimum width of the right-of-way at 50 feet, rather than 44.  While that means the sidings will interfere with the mixed-use path in the narrower segments of the right-of-way, moving the path is far cheaper than extraneous track.

Though this doesn’t give SMART operational flexibility to raise and lower frequencies or speeds at will, the currently planned system doesn’t either. Any changes in frequency or speed will require some capital investment to ensure passing tracks are where they need to be. Compared to the cost of SMART’s trains, though, it’s not much of an expense.

Can SMART Double-Track?

Photo by Dave S.

The currently planned SMART line, while a much-needed addition to our region’s transportation mix, is inadequate as a car replacement.  The trains will run every 30 minutes during rush hour, once in the middle of the day, and not at all at night.  This is well below the generally accepted 15-minute minimum for show-up-and-go service that you would get on BART.  To bring SMART up to that level of service will require an investment, but not as dire an investment as typically thought.

The easiest problem to solve is that of mid-day service.  SMART should just run trains during that timeframe, problem solved.  Freight could roll during the unused nighttime hours.

The problem of long headways, however, is a physical constraint.  SMART operates on a single-track corridor with sidings to allow trains to pass one another as they move in opposite directions.  The double-track segments will make up about 17% of the corridor, but that’s just enough to allow 30 minute service and not much more.

To double-track, California law requires a 44-foot right-of-way: 15 feet from the track’s center (centerline) to the edge of the right of way, 14 feet from centerline to centerline, and 15 feet on the other side.  SMART’s corridor typically includes a mixed-use path as well, which is another 12 feet wide, bringing the preferred right-of-way width to 56 feet.

The Puerto Suello Hill tunnel in San Rafael. It doesn’t look terribly wide, but SMART pegs it at 30 feet. Photo by D kosdrosky

While most of the right-of-way is wide enough for two tracks and the path, in three locations – Petaluma, Novato, and San Rafael – the width available drops to 50 feet and the mixed-use path will need to be moved to a parallel street.  Still, in each of these segments it’s trivial to double-track. In San Rafael, however, we face a much different situation.  The right-of-way narrows to 30 feet from Puerto Suello Hill to the Downtown San Rafael station, substantially less than required by California for a second track.

Thankfully, the segment is short enough that it doesn’t need the second track.  The 1.8 miles will take about 2.5 minutes to traverse.  If we include a 2 minute pad and schedule our northbound and southbound trains to arrive at San Rafael at the same time, there will never be any conflict and therefore no need for a second track.

This solution does introduce some constraints on future SMART operations.  Dwell times would need to be introduced to ensure punctuality at San Rafael.  Headways could never be less than 7 minutes at current speeds (2.5 minutes for the southbound train to clear + 2.5 minutes for the southbound train to clear + 2 minute pad).  It might be possible to double-track the tunnel, which doesn’t need as much width, and squeeze out another minute of headway, but by then there would be other problems of capacity that could be solved more cheaply.

The cost-per-mile of double tracks varies from project to project.  A double-track project in Carlsbad had a cost of $9.68 million per mile; another project in New York State had a cost of $5.28 million per mile (PDF); and a third in Florida gave about $5 million.  These give an estimated cost of between $284 million and $549 million.  The lower figure is more in line with industry standards, and it’s roughly half the cost SMART will spend on physical rail on its existing right-of-way.

The last piece to the puzzle, rolling stock, is similarly expensive.  The Nippon-Sharyo DMUs used by SMART cost $6.67 million per train.  At my proposed 15 minute headways, SMART would need 15 trains, 9 more than currently on order, at a cost of $60.03 million.  At the maximum service of 7 minute headways, SMART would need 28 more trains than currently on order, costing $186.76 million.  The next logical steps – electrification to speed trains, grade separation to eliminate street crossings, and automated trains to decrease costs – would squeeze more capacity out of the line, but that’s beyond this exercise.

We do this for transit and frequency

Every city on the route, except Novato, wants to accommodate new construction around their SMART stations.  Given the trendiness of smart growth and transit-oriented development, city planners and councils are giddy with the possibilities.  In Windsor, the city has applications for 1,150 new apartments despite the fact that Windsor isn’t even on SMART’s initial operating segment.

Yet there won’t be much rail transit for them to orient around.  Buses can take up the slack, but they are slower than SMART and are forced to mix with traffic on 101.  The train will outperform buses in every measure except frequency of service, and providing more of that premium transit product would keep more people off the roads.  One ridership study for a SMART corridor with 15 minute headways estimated 24,000 trips per day, a sizable percentage (one-quarter to one-third) of the transportation market between Sonoma and Marin.

But this project is for a Phase 3, not for the current IOS.  SMART has yet to prove its worth to the North Bay, and the North Bay has yet to prove it can support a rail line.  The density of jobs, residences, and activities is currently quite low near the planned stations.  The capital improvements needed are expensive, as are high frequencies, and it’s not clear they would be worth the investment.  SMART can’t write off that possibility, however, and needs to engineer its tracks to allow double-tracking in the future. Though it styles itself a commuter rail, SMART could be the primary transit artery for Sonoma and Marin, and it needs to be ready to fill that role if it comes. Until then, the least it could do is run trains whenever it can: 30 minute headways, all day, every day.

Mid-Week Links: Formalization

Marin City Sunset

Marin City at sunset. Photo by Veit Irtenkauf on Flickr.

Marin County

  • Marin City is pondering incorporation. Though it would give the community of 6,000 greater independence in some respects, it would also mean higher costs, its own RHNA, and added responsibilities now taken care of by the county. (IJ)
  • Skywalker Properties was partially to blame for the Grady Ranch debacle, at least according to the state water board, because it knew certain aspects of its creek restoration effort were “unacceptable.” (IJ)
  • New housing guidelines are in development for unincorporated Marin, and the county wants your input. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The Marin District Attorney has launched an investigation into a $350,000 housing loan given to former RVSD general manager Brett Richards. (IJ) … Belvedere has an interim city manager. (IJ) … Fairfax to get electric vehicle charging stations. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Metro Atlanta rejected a major investment in its transportation infrastructure on Tuesday, turning down a 1% sales tax in all but three of its regions, which will see their own investments. Transit advocates are, of course, disheartened. (Streetsblog)
  • The fiscal health of a city is related to its urban form. Sprawling suburbs cost more to maintain than more densely packed cities and towns. Stockton and Bakersfield didn’t go under because of too much housing; they went under in part because they spread it too thin. (CNN)
  • Coddingtown Mall is throwing its weight around, demanding that the Coddingtown Station Area Plan leave some streets without bicycle lanes, cut out other bike lanes and new streets that cross mall property, and more, saying they would impose “undue economic hardship” on the property. (Press Democrat)
  • Napa County has a new director of transportation and planning. Kate Miller’s resume is thick on more urban experience, running AC Transit and working for MTC, and here’s hoping that will translate into better service for the Valley. (St. Helena Star)
  • When Caltrans wants to improve air quality in Los Angeles, it doesn’t turn to transit, it turns to wider roads. (Bay Citizen)

The Toll

  • A 37-year-old cyclist died in Santa Rosa after a driver hit him at an intersection. He’s the fifth bicyclist to be killed in Santa Rosa this year. (Press Democrat)
  • Sonoma: A very intoxicated driver seriously injured himself and a man standing in the shoulder of Highway 116. (Press Democrat) … A driver ran off a cliff and survived. (Press Democrat) … A driver was beaten and his car was stolen after a minor fender-bender in Santa Rosa. (Press Democrat)
  • Marin: Two motorcyclists riding at around 100 miles per hour collided, seriously injuring one another. (IJ) … The plaid-hating Tiburon driver apparently also hates bicyclists. (IJ) … A woman drove off Highway 101 and injured herself. (IJ)
  • The toll this week was one person killed, six people injured, and one person beaten.
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