Public Access and Openness Is a Win-Win-Win

Lights in the Darkness. Photo by Jim Collier

This November, Marin County residents will be asked to vote in six council elections, three district elections, and one mayoral election on top of eight ballot initiatives. There are 40 people running for 22 positions and there have been debates in most of the races. Not one is available online on-demand, and at least one wasn’t even recorded. This, in the most tech-savvy part of the country, is unacceptable.

Most debates happen during the work day, when a typical voter is at work with their nose to the grindstone. The first Novato council debate, for example, took place on a Friday morning, as did the first San Rafael mayoral debate. Night time debates often aren’t much better, scheduled early in the evening when most are still coming home.

The Community Media Center of Marin (CMCM) and Novato Public Access typically record events, but rather than put them on YouTube or their own sites, they keep them for pre-scheduled reruns online. If it’s already in a digital format, why lock it up?

Not only does this throw up an unnecessary barrier to voters but it makes life significantly more difficult for news outlets, especially blogs. As a blogger, I cannot embed, reference, cut up, sample or refer to specific bits of the debate without first creating my own recordings of their recordings, and the IJ and Patch can’t either. Instead, we reference the parts that we think are interesting in pieces about the debates, leaving readers’ interests by the wayside. If we want to quote someone’s debate answer after the reruns have stopped, we’re out of luck.

If debates were online, they could be used on any website at any time. Candidates could post video of their success and their opponent’s gaffe, TV and radio reporters could use the video on their shows without the expense of sending a news team, hosts get their logo everywhere the video is referenced, and voters get exposed to the voices and faces of people they wouldn’t otherwise think about. This could be a win for everyone.

Candidate debates are a vital part of the democratic process. They enable us to contrast competing perspectives, allow us to get a read on candidates’ knowledge, and serve as a proxy forum for the major issues of the day. In Marin, we are grappling major and contentious issues that will shape the county for decades: SMART, affordable housing, pension reform, and downtown revitalization. Knowing where our candidates stand informs the debate and informs the voter, so that everyone better knows where our County is going.

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Mid-Week Links: Portly Passengers


Pardon my geekery, but this was the first I’d seen of Marin’s old commuter trains in action.  They’re EMUs, the electrical version of SMART’s DMUs.  Strange also to see so much empty space in West End, and interesting to see how the buildings along the rails still treat the roads as something to be shunned.

Marin County Elections

  • San Anselmo, Larkspur and Corte Madera all had council debates this week, none of which are available online.  At least you can read about the races; that’s good enough, right?  If you can time it right, you can watch them on the Community Media Center of Marin’s live stream.
  • There is a highly edited video of the San Rafael Council Candidate’s forum available on Patch with a pre-event questionnaire.  Candidates are all in favor of leveraging SMART to improve downtown, with incumbent Damon Connolly giving the strongest answers.
  • Last month’s San Rafael mayoral debate may not have been recorded (the host speculated that it “would’ve been a good idea”), but that doesn’t mean there’s no news.
  • Tiburon’s school board race wouldn’t come up but for a renewed focus on making Tiburon Boulevard, the principal artery on the peninsula, a safer, better street for all users but especially schoolchildren.
  • Mill Valley’s vacancies were uncontested, so the town cancelled their elections.  Not everyone is happy.

Marin County

  • SMART has secured authorization from the MTC to use $33.1 million in Larkspur station funds on the IOS.
  • “We believe in working toward making [SMART] better, ensuring that it spends its money wisely and makes sound decisions. Opponents just want to kill it.” – Press-Democrat Editorial Board
  • Marin Transit contracts with Golden Gate Transit to provide local bus service within Marin, and it wants to renegotiate.  In the comments Kevin Moore and I get into the details of GGT’s farebox recovery rate.
  • Food Truck Crush is over for now.  Long live Off the Grid!
  • A driver accidentally killed herself and seriously injured a passenger in a crash on 101.
  • San Rafael’s West End is a bit of a drive-through part of the city, and a vacant Big Box doesn’t help.
  • Two new developments are up for review in San Rafael: a 67-unit apartment building at 1380 Mission and a 9 unit townhome building at 21 G.  The meeting and documents are available on San Rafael’s website.
  • Biking is certainly for road mobility, but MCBC is shifting focus to the slopes and trails in Marin’s open space.
  • Getting women interested in biking, one class at a time.
  • Believe it or not, it’s more expensive to live in Marin than it is to live in San Francisco.  Being forced to rely on the car doesn’t help.
  • Novato debated its housing element last night.  No word on decisions as of press time.
  • Mill Valley did the same, and also debated an amendment to the Miller Avenue Streetscape Plan.
  • San Anselmo is getting a bunch of slurry seal work done on its roads, although it was delayed by rain.

The Greater Marin

  • Santa Rosa is getting progressive, what with plans for a pedestrian bridge, bicycle parking and shower requirements.  It could use an overhaul of its use-based zoning restrictions, though.
  • San Francisco’s F-Line – those historic streetcars running along the Embarcadero – is expanding West.
  • The US Department of Transportation is pushing high-speed rail loans out the door before Congress shuts down the whole intercity rail project.
  • Greater Greater Washington posits that music venues should engage with the streetscape but often don’t, and I’m inclined to agree.  Fenix Live in San Rafael will do well on this metric.

SMART Money Part II: The Myth and Allure of Caltrain North

Dick Spotswood is a supporter of SMART and an optimist regarding its success, but his insistence that it could function with the same form as Caltrain shows a lack of understanding of how either system must work.

Back in July, Spotswood argued:

When in Oceanside, [former general manager Lillian] Hames’ crew should have walked across the depot to ride Coaster, the excellent passenger rail line linking the San Diego County coast. There, they’d find an off-the-shelf commuter railroad using high-capacity cars that are America’s standard.

They would work perfectly in the North Bay hauled by environment-friendly Tier Four locomotives… It’s all proven technology. Think Caltrain on San Francisco’s Peninsula.

This, he says, would result in $120 million in savings and provide twice the capacity over the Sharryo DMUs SMART ended up buying.  The savings would come from:

  • Using non-customized trains
  • Cutting specialized track work
  • Cutting specialized signaling systems
  • Cutting high loading platforms

This is simply bonkers.  The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has rules of crashworthiness that come into force when freight trains run with passenger trains, rules that Caltrain doesn’t meet.  The Sharryo trains cost $6.3 million apiece.  A comparable FRA-compliant and Caltrain-style train costs $11.7 million*, almost double the original cost.  Not only that, but the locomotive makes the train too long to fit within a normal city block, meaning streets would be blocked while the train is at a station.  Caltrain is elevated Caltrain’s stations are grade-separated and so does not have that issue.

FRA rules regarding freight/passenger interaction also dictate the specialized track work and signaling systems, which total only $36 million.  ADA and FRA regulations conspire to require level boarding at stations, but the stations cost less than $3 million apiece.  Even cutting them all entirely would only save $27 million.  I cannot understand how one finds cost savings of $120 million by purchasing more expensive trains and cutting legally required capital expenditures.

The point is that train type doesn’t dictate much with regards to SMART’s capital costs.  Specialization does come with a price, and there may be one to pay in maintenance later, but SMART’s cost overruns are not the result of purchasing DMUs and so cannot be fixed by replicating the Caltrain model in the North Bay.  Indeed, Caltrain’s model is unsuited to the SMART corridor because those corridors are different.  Caltrain cannot run with freight, its trains are too long to run at street level, and it is more expensive than the custom-built DMUs SMART already has.  Making them fit SMART’s constraints would only cost more.

If someone wants to build a boondoggle, running Caltrain on SMART’s tracks would be a good place to start.

UPDATE: Multiple commentators have pointed out that Caltrain is already FRA-compliant, and that the waiver is for future, rather than current, service.  This was an oversight on my part, but the point still stands: traditional trainsets are too long and too expensive for SMART.

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* Assuming 1 Amtrak locomotive at $6.7 million and 2 Bombardier Bi-Level cars, to accommodate the 312 seats Spotswood argues are necessary, at $2.5 million apiece.