Holidays

Normal Mondays see a new post, but this is not a normal Monday. I was travelling all day Sunday and I plan to be on the road today and tomorrow as well. In that light, I am taking the next few days off.

Have a Happy New Year, and remember to take transit home after your party. You deserve it.

Grady Ranch is still a bad idea

Stop Sign

Stop Sign by thecrazyfilmgirl, on Flickr

Last Thursday, the IJ published an editorial defending the Grady Ranch affordable housing project from critics. If we don’t know what the project will look like, asks the editorial board, how can we criticize? Perhaps it will include a bike lane and sidewalks all the way to 101. Perhaps there will be a place for Marin Transit to run a shuttle, never mind the cost. And perhaps there will be a small grocery store so residents will be able to do at least one errand without getting in the car.

While it’s true that we don’t know how the project will look, the arguments in defense of the project don’t address the fundamental flaw of “affordable” sprawl: the burden of car-dependence on residents, and the burden of maintenance on the County.

Grady Ranch isn’t “a rare opportunity to help meet Marin’s need for affordable housing.” To the contrary, it would doom hundreds of low-income people to an expensive existence of car-dependance. The whole point of creating a walkable, bikeable mix of jobs and housing, which the IJ dismisses so easily, is to free people from the burden of car ownership. A car should be an option for those who want it, not a necessity for those who can’t afford it. Why we would want to give our poor another burden they cannot carry is beyond me.

If car ownership will be residents’ burden, services and infrastructure will be the County’s. MCF, as a nonprofit, doesn’t pay any taxes on any of its land or developments, meaning new residents won’t have to pay. And, even if supervisors could foist the cost of extending services and infrastructure onto developers, that still leaves ongoing costs. Infrastructure needs maintenance and services have payrolls. Will Lucas, or MCF, or “possible grant providers” be willing to pay that expense for the next 50 years? Somehow, I don’t think even George Lucas would be that generous.

These problems and the others I raised before need to be addressed in the first draft of the plan, not later. We cannot give MCF and Lucas “the opportunity to come up with a detailed plan before going on the attack.” Supervisors, citizens, and the two Grady Ranch partners must answer these problems now.

Besides, even if Grady Ranch is an irredeemable project, that doesn’t mean the end result can’t be less terrible. Given how bad the project is just on its face, we need to start to shape it before they’ve put time into a detailed plan. If the county pushes forward, this may be the only chance we’ll get.

SMART grade crossings and congestion

CSX Railroad Crossing Lights

by lakelandlocal, on Flickr

Some SMART opponents have been arguing that the SMART train will cause massive traffic congestion along its route whenever it closes the crossing gates.

The idea is that SMART will run most often at rush hour, when our roads are busiest, and that it would cross over some fairly busy roads at grade. The crossing gates would close for a time, backups would result, and rush hour would be ruined for everyone. This analysis deserves examination.

Federal guidelines on the subject require crossing arms to close at least 20 seconds before a train passes, and open no more than 12 seconds after the train has passed. Though most crossing arms I’ve seen open almost immediately after the train has passed, let’s say the gate will be closed at least 32 seconds.

If a 170-foot SMART train is moving at 25 miles per hour, or 37 feet per second, it will clear a 35-foot wide intersection in less than 6 seconds. If it’s slowing to a stop, such as around Fourth Street in San Rafael, it might travel at about a fifth that speed, and will cross the same intersection in 28 seconds. SMART’s design documents say it will run at the same speed as parallel streets, so these are reasonable speeds to assume. Added these times to the minimum closure time and we find a maximum an approximate wait delay of 60 seconds, roughly the same amount of time as a normal traffic light. Thanks to long headways, each grade crossing will have to endure, at most, 60 seconds of delay twice four times per hour.

In the populated areas SMART will cross through, the crossing arms will communicate with with the rest of the traffic light system. That will further minimize the effect of the train’s activities on local traffic flow.

It seems, then, that the concern is overheated. While freight trains extending thousands of feet in length would cause major congestion, the relatively short SMART trains will be speedy enough so as not to cause a problem. With intelligent traffic engineering, they won’t be any more of a pain than traffic lights are now.

This post has been updated for clarity.

Well, that SMARTs a little…

On December 10th, 2012, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority Board of Directors approved programming $6.6 million of the County’s $9.9 million pot of federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) funds to Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) for the purchase of an additional train set.

We know you are probably having some feelings about this decision, among them anger and confusion.

SCBC’s here to provide for you some context, describe the circumstances around the vote, explain what the vote means for bicycling in Sonoma County, share our position on the vote, and our strategy moving forward.

The Context

Sonoma County Transportation Authority (SCTA) coordinates transportation planning and funding throughout the County. Most of the transportation funding that SCTA receives is programmed through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), SCTA’s Regional counterpart, which manages transportation planning and funding for the 9 Bay Area Counties.

SCTA works to bring to Sonoma County funding for highways, roads, transit, and bicycle and pedestrian projects. This is a complex and wonky process comprising many pieces. There are various “pots” of federal and state money that filter through MTC to SCTA.

One of these pots is CMAQ. These federal funds can be used for projects that help reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. A variety of project types are eligible for CMAQ funding, including, but not limited to, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects. In Sonoma County, CMAQ has historically been a significant (if not the top) source of funding for bicycle pedestrian projects. SCTA programs these funds to eligible projects through a competitive process in 2-4 year cycles.

The concerned $9.9 million pot of CMAQ funding (mentioned in the introduction) is for projects through 2016, and is set to be programmed starting in 2013. Over the past year, each of the nine cities in Sonoma County, the County of Sonoma, and SMART itself, have been able to submit projects to be considered for CMAQ funding. These jurisdictions submitted to SCTA by a November 30th deadline $38 million worth of projects deemed eligible for CMAQ funding. Under the normal SCTA process, these eligible projects in 2013 would have to compete for shares of the $9.9 million of available CMAQ funding.

The Vote

On Thursday, December 6th, Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition learned that SMART was to make a special request to the SCTA Board of Directors at the latter’s December 10th meeting. Based on our understanding, other stakeholders and the members of the SCTA Board of Directors learned of this request the same day as did SCBC.

SMART’s request was that the SCTA Board agree to put ahead of all other CMAQ-eligible projects its own eligible request for $6.6 million to purchase an additional train set. The SCTA Board was asked to vote on whether to program this funding without putting SMART ‘s request through SCTA’s regular competitive process.

SMART asserted that it needs the train set in order to provide full service to the North Santa Rosa station at the time the Initial Operating Segment (the “IOS” – North Santa Rosa to San Rafael) opens in 2015 or 2016. SMART asserted that full service to this station (rather than the 2/3 service possible without it) is critical because North Santa Rosa station represents 80% anticipated ridership for the Sonoma County portion of the IOS.

SMART argued that going outside the normal SCTA process was necessary because SMART must order the train set by the end of 2012 for two reasons: 1) SMART will be able to get the additional train set for the same price as those it has already ordered; and 2) If SMART does not order now, the new train set will not arrive until 2018, well after SMART begins service on the IOS.

After asking some good questions, hearing public comment by 7 people (including SCBC Outreach Director Sandra Lupien), and a good amount of discussion, the SCTA Board voted 10-2 to approve SMART’s request. Almost every member of the Board said they were unhappy with the ramifications of their decision for available bicycle/pedestrian funding, and expressed that it was a very difficult decision to make.

What it means for bike/ped

By approving SMART’s request for $6.6 million, the SCTA Board has left just $3.3 million in CMAQ funds available for about $31 million in CMAQ eligible projects. It is hard to tell based on the project list overview what portion of the projects submitted by cities and the County are bicycle projects. It looks like most of them are multi-use projects that include some combination of roadway improvements that may include bicycle lanes, sidewalks, and crosswalks. There are a few multi-use Class I projects on the list. The largest share of bike/ped projects on the list are segments of the SMART Multi-use Pathway.

These bicycle-pedestrian projects will, through SCTA’s normal process, have to compete against each other and the other eligible projects for a much smaller pot of money. That could mean that important bicycle-pedestrian projects could be more likely to be delayed until a later funding cycle.

When voting on SMART’s request on December 10, several members of the Board expressed hope that SCTA would prioritize the bicycle-pedestrian projects for the remaining $3.3 million in funding. The Board also directed staff to allow jurisdictions to re-submit their CMAQ-eligible projects to enable jurisdictions to prioritize projects based on the smaller pot of money.

Finally, SCTA staff did mention that there is $1.4 million in potential bike/ped funding through the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), and $11.4 million available in Surface Transportation Projects (STP) funding that can be used for bike/ped.

SCBC’s position

This decision SMARTs for sure, but we want to be sure that SCBC’s position is clear. There are parts of this whole situation that we don’t like, parts we think are not a huge deal, and parts that we think need a little clarifying.

What we really don’t like

1. SMART jumped the queue with an 11th hour request – Based on the conversation on December 10th, SCBC can understand why SMART needs to buy the train set by the end of the year, particularly because a 2018 arrival of the train set would be too late. What we don’t understand is why SMART waited until the last minute to make the request. When SMART announced in early 2012 that it was able to add the North Santa Rosa Station to the Initial Operating Segment, it announced that it could only offer 2/3 service to that station with its budgeted equipment. That left nearly a year to figure out how to get the train set needed to offer full service to North Santa Rosa. A few months – rather than a few days — lead time on SMART’s request would have allowed the SCTA Board of Directors to make a more well-reasoned decision, explore other options, etc.

2. SMART did not notify stakeholders (other agencies, public works departments, SCBC) that it planned to make this significant request. The lack of communication left SCBC – and probably other stakeholders – feeling blindsided.

3. This process has made clear that SCTA’s CMAQ-eligible project list does not include a satisfactory number of competitive, deliverable bicycle projects. This, in spite of the fact that each municipality has excellent bicycle/pedestrian projects planned. This means that jurisdictions are not submitting their bike/ped projects for funding.

4. This vote by the SCTA Board threatens to delay some projects for several years. We don’t like to see any bicycle/pedestrian project delayed. We think that the need to increase safe bicycle access must be prioritized and that jurisdictions must build out their bike/ped plans.

What is not that big of a deal:

1. Using CMAQ money to support important transit project in our County — SMART — is a legitimate use of this funding source.

What is worth noting:

1. The availability of the $1.4 million in TAP funds is a good thing, and so is the potential availability of $11 million in STP funds. Both of these funds are also competitive and by no means limited to bike/ped projects.

What SCBC is going to do

1. Status of the Multi-use Pathway (MUP)
Many people appear to be under the mistaken notion that this decision somehow means that SMART has cut the multi-use pathway from the project. This decision is not related to the MUP in any way. That said, SCBC does hear concerns from the bicycle community as to whether SMART does in fact intend to build the pathway as planned. While we are aware that segments of the MUP are currently under construction, and more will be under construction in the Spring, we believe that SMART owes the bicycle community a strong and direct commitment. Therefore, we will meet with SMART next week and demand that SMART provide public assurances that the MUP is, was, and always will be a part of the SMART project. We will also urge SMART to make a public statement as to the status of the various segments of the MUP and when they’re expected to be completed.

2. SMART as a community partner
We will explain to SMART that the agency must be a transparent, communicative community partner that engages key stakeholders in key decisions.

3. Urge SCTA to prioritize bike projects
As noted above, some members of the SCTA Board expressed hope that bike/ped projects would be prioritized for the remaining CMAQ money. We will push SCTA to honor this sentiment with action. We will also push SCTA to fund bike/ped projects with the $1.4 million in available TAP funds, and with some of the $11m in available STP funds.

4. Push for more, deliverable bike projects
As noted above, this decision has made clear that for some reason, the various jurisdictions are not submitting their compelling bike projects for CMAQ funding. We are going to work with public works departments to find out why they’re not bringing forth their bike projects, and to provide support and encouragement to help them do so moving forward. Every community in Sonoma County has great plans for bikes; we need the jurisdictions to prioritize getting those projects funded, implemented, and open to the public!

Thank you for taking the time to read and understand this situation. Here is what you can do to help:

1. Join Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. We are your voice! We’re here to fight for bicycle projects. Your membership makes SCBC more influential.

2. Get everyone you know to join Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

3. Make an end-of-the-year donation to Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. We’re not kidding around. Donations and membership dues make it possible for us to represent the bicycle community. We get grants for programs like Safe Routes to School, but grants are not available to fund our advocacy efforts. It’s up to you!

4. Write to your elected officials, to the SCTA Board of Directors, and to the SCTA Executive Director. Let them know you want them to prioritize funding for bicycle projects in Sonoma County and in your city. If you need help finding these email addresses, please contact SCBC.

Please call us at 707-545-0153 if you have any questions. You may also email Sandra@BikeSonoma.org.

SCBC is here to fight to create the safe, accessible, amazing bicycle community we want to see; together with you, we’re making it happen!

This piece was cross-posted from the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition blog.

Marin Trolley should start with goals

Road rage

Road rage by Payton Chung, on Flickr

Over the past few weeks, the prospect of a trolley running from Manor to San Rafael has become a bit more real. San Anselmo, Fairfax, and San Rafael all asked TAM to authorize a study of the corridor, and the county released $10,000 to do just that.

Even before the study has been completed, however, it’s possible to analyze what the trolley would cost and whether a streetcar would be the best way to meet the goals of supporters and the travel demand of the corridor itself.

The plan as presented

The Marin Trolley project envisions the 5-mile Manor-San Rafael line as the first of a comprehensive streetcar system through central and southern Marin. Though the precise technologies haven’t been determined yet, Marin Trolley has been boosting battery-powered streetcars running with traffic. Unlike the old Interurban or SMART, the system would not have its own right-of-way – it could get stuck in car traffic, just as buses currently do. Headways would be about 20 minutes during regular service and presumably less during rush hour, compared to 15-45 minutes along the corridor today.

Using similar systems as a guide, we can broadly estimate the cost of this first segment to be between $50 million and $220 million, which would include the cost of vehicles, maintenance facilities, rails, and battery recharging at stations.

That the trolley would need to compete with traffic is not a problem unique to Marin. The DC Streetcar system is planned to run with traffic for much of its route, to the chagrin of many transit supporters. The Muni Metro system gets stuck in traffic at times, too, despite dedicated lanes that make it illegal for cars to use the same lane.

Start with goals, not technology

Marin Trolley has outlined five goals for the system:

  1. Increase frequency of transit service
  2. Make transit more accessible to seniors by removing stairs (“level boarding”)
  3. Convey a sense of routing and permanence
  4. Spur economic development
  5. Provide a viable alternative to driving

Whenever doing strategic planning, it’s important to examine the goals first and create a solution that best meets those goals. Transit is no different, though often planners – especially in the US – put technology first and try to fit goals to it after the fact. It seems as though Marin Trolley may have fallen victim to this unfortunate tendency, as four of these goals are possible with buses today while the fifth, economic development, requires land-use policy changes unlikely to pass any of the three towns.

  1. None of the three regular bus lines serving the Manor-San Rafael corridor are terribly high-frequency. Route 29 runs hourly except on Sundays, when it doesn’t run at all. The first four southbound departures of Route 22 turn into Route 18 at College of Marin. Route 23 doesn’t always run east of Greenfield Avenue. Giving the corridor 15 minute headways would require some scheduling changes and possibly adding service, but is far cheaper than a new service.
  2. Level boarding is a common feature on buses, and Marin Transit has been building up its fleet. Adjustments to stops – raising the curb slightly and creating “bulb-outs” so the bus doesn’t need to pull out of traffic, which often places the bus at weird angles – would allow a roll-on, roll-off service for those who need it.
  3. Nothing beats a rail in the ground, but better communication through mapping, branding, and real-time arrival information can make bus lines feel almost as permanent.
  4. Economic development happens around bus rapid transit lines that don’t have to mix with traffic and streetcar lines that do. However, streetcars similar to Marin Trolley have typically happened in blighted areas that have huge untapped development potential, such as the H Street Corridor in Washington, DC.The Manor-San Rafael corridor lacks abandoned buildings and underused potential with the current zoning that characterizes other corridors. Without land-use policy changes that increase the density of trip origins and destinations (i.e., more homes, offices, and shops), the development potential is limited. Given how skeptical Marinites are of development and increasing density, I’d be surprised if the necessary zoning changes would get out of committee, much less passed by any of the councils.
  5. A viable alternative to driving is one that is faster and more efficient than driving. By mixing with cars, a streetcar cannot provide improved speeds over either traffic or the bus. According to Marin Trolley, 45% of travel along the corridor is two miles or less, which is within the range that bicycling is most competitive against driving. Pushing half of those trips to walking and biking would take a great deal of cars off the road.

Trolleys do provide capacity improvements to buses, but there isn’t a capacity shortage. Ridership on the 23 is about 930 per day. Since more people also take the 22 and 29, I’d generously guesstimate that no more than 1400 people per day use the bus system along the Manor-San Rafael corridor. Many of those that do are students going to White Hill, meaning they would not be regular riders for the summertime.

A viable trolley

While I am skeptical of the plan as proposed, I do believe there is a chance to make the trolley a viable alternative to the car, but it involves a much more comprehensive intervention than the Marin Trolley proposal. In essence, the trolley would need to be mass transit along a pedestrian-oriented boulevard rather than a car-oriented strip.

For the trolley to become mass transit, it would need to run in dedicated lanes. While it wouldn’t need the whole right-of-way that existed for the Interurban, it would need two traffic lanes in either direction. Center Boulevard, part of Broadway, and Miracle Mile would all be reduced by two lanes. In Center’s case, that would mean eliminating it as a roadway entirely. This would allow the trolley, as well as commuter buses, to beat traffic along the corridor, enticing ridership away from the roads. It would be speedy and convenient in a way that Marin’s transit hasn’t been in 70 years.

To make Miracle Mile into a walkable boulevard would require traffic calming and upzoning to at least match downtowns. At the moment, San Anselmo and San Rafael have their portions of Miracle Mile zoned as “highway commercial”, which forces development to be deliberately auto-oriented. The high parking minimums would need to be eliminated, while floor-area ratios and height and density limits would need to be raised. Thankfully, the tall hills that hem in Miracle Mile means 4-6 story buildings would be able to rise without impeding views.

The Marin Trolley proposal, as currently formulated, would dramatically overbuild the corridor’s transit system. Only by boosting the density and transit-friendliness of the corridor and isolating the trolley from traffic would that capacity be met.

More modest interventions, such as traffic calming, Class I bicycle lanes, wider sidewalks, and replicating Fairfax’s successful elimination of highway zones, are called for along the corridor. The goals Marin Trolley outlines are best met by bolstering the existing system. At the moment, there’s no need for another one.

David Edmondson:

Given last week’s post about Grady Ranch, it might be good to have a refresher on just how expensive car commuting actually is. A bit over a year ago I posted this piece on the aggregate cost of driving alone to work, and it bears repeating.

Originally posted on The Greater Marin:

The Novato Narrows. Photo by Gerry Geronimo

Marin’s commuting workforce travels quite a distance for work, 11.5 miles each way on average, thanks in part to its relatively suburban character.  Although most would say such a commute isn’t terrible, commuting even that far is a massive financial loss to everyone involved, and Marin’s economy suffers for it.

Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache recently penned a fantastic piece on the true cost of commuting (which I truly recommend) and found that an 18 mile commute, roughly from downtown San Rafael to Market Street, costs around $75,000 over the course of a decade and wastes roughly 1.3 working years of time.  He factors in the IRS cost of $0.51 per mile in car depreciation, gas, and the like and assumes that it could be reinvested at about 5% interest.  This is crazy, and that’s just for one person.

How much time and money is lost to commuting alone…

View original 530 more words

End-Week Links: Hills

Sunset on a Masterpiece, by C. M. Keiner, on flickr

Sunset on a Masterpiece, by C. M. Keiner, on flickr

Marin Lesser and Greater

  • Peter robbed; Paul under investigation: Sonoma granted SMART $6.6 million of $9 million in bike/ped funding. The funds, from a federal congestion mitigation grant, will be used to purchase an additional train for the extended IOS. Sonoma bike activists are angry, to say the least unhappy, understanding, and moving forward. (Systemic Failure, SCBC)
  • Tilting at windmills: Wind turbines could be allowed in West Marin under the latest revisions to the Local Coastal Plan. Environmentalists oppose the measure, saying it would industrialize the rural region. (Pt. Reyes Light)
  • Tackling homelessness in San Rafael: Through mental health services and jobs, San Rafael is doing more to fight homelessness than just crack down on nuisance behavior. Here’s hoping it does good. (IJ)
  • Another study coming down the track: Transit feasibility in the Fairfax-San Rafael corridor is on its way yet again. TAM and MTC will examine whether BRT, rapid bus, or a full-fledged streetcar line would be best to serve the 5-mile strip. (Pacific Sun)
  • RHNA is almost as fickle as thought: Despite 43 years of affordable housing mandates, California remains woefully short on affordable housing. ABAG has tried to adjust to the demands of cities, but such a scattershot approach doesn’t make up for the state process’s shortcomings. (Bohemian via Scott Alonso)
  • Get your son on a bike: Research from the UK shows that it’s far safer for young men to ride a bike than to drive. Given that driving is the number one cause of death among teenagers, perhaps those Every 11 Minutes campaigns could be supplemented by some good old-fashioned bike lessons. (Red Orbit, CDC)
  • Hybrids really aren’t so green: Hybrids, at least if you look at their entire life-cycle, really aren’t as green as their reputation. The batteries are difficult to dispose of; the mileage really isn’t so great; and their battery will only last about 80,000 miles, meaning one will need to buy a new vehicle far sooner than otherwise. Perhaps Marin needs a new family car, like a bike. (Streetsblog)
  • Do the council shuffle: San Anselmo picks Kay Coleman for mayor. (Patch) … There’s still time to apply for San Rafael City Council. (IJ)
  • And…: Despite the threat of financial receivership, Detroit’s downtown is positively booming. (NY Times) … Local transit has published their holiday schedule. (GGT) … San Rafael Airport developer compares their sports complex project to Grady Ranch. (IJ) … The libertarian take on land use planning. (United Liberty)

The Toll

At least five people, and possibly a sixth, were injured this week.

  • Yes, a hit and run is indeed a felony: Jared Whisman-Pryor, who prosecutors say hit and seriously injured bicyclist William Schilling, has turned himself in to Rohnert Park Police. As it turns out, he will be charged for felony hit-and-run. (PD)
  • Obituary for mother killed last week: Barbara Rothwell accidentally killed herself in a car crash last week near Bolinas. The Point Reyes Light paints a portrait of her life cut short. She was 48.
  • Marin Injuries: A driver hit a woman while she was crossing the street in Novato, sending her to the hospital. (IJ) … A driver seriously injured himself by crashing into a power pole in Terra Linda. (Patch)
  • Sonoma Injuries: Ben Rhoades seriously injured himself and another driver by driving under the influence and colliding head-on with the other driver near Cotati. (Patch) … A driver rolled their minivan in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, though whether they injured themselves wasn’t immediately reported. (PD) … An 87-year-old driver seriously injured Wilfred Lewis, who was crossing the street in Santa Rosa. The driver said he never saw Lewis. (PD)

Got a tip? Want to write an article? Email us at theGreaterMarin [at] gmail.com or send a tweet to @theGreaterMarin.

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