Tell the Bridge District No to Larkspur parking garages

Larkspur Landing at dawn

Larkspur Landing at dawn by udpslp, on Flickr

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District (GGBHTD) could approve a parking garage at Larkspur Ferry Terminal in the next few months. Such a concession to a single mode would be bad news for transit-oriented development around Larkspur Landing and for ridership and would be a waste of money by the District.

Today I sent letters to all 19 members of GGBHTD’s Board of Directors asking them to reject the garage in favor of other solutions, such as a Transit Center shuttle or a parking district. I also sent letters to General Manager Denis Mulligan and Deputy General Manager of the Ferry Division James Swindler, asking them to recommend against a garage.

If you want to do the same, sign this letter and let your GGBHTD Board members know. Feel free to use the letter below, either to email or snail-mail your response or as talking points for a phone call. You can find members’ contact information on the Board website. Click on their portrait for more info.

Together, I’m confident we can defeat the money-wasting garages in favor of a solution that is more financially sustainable and better for our county and the region.

Dear Member of the Board,

I’m writing to you to express my concerns about the construction of parking garages at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. In short, I feel this is an expensive solution to the problem of getting passengers to the ferry terminal. There are two less expensive ways to achieve the same ends:

Utilize unused parking stalls in Larkspur Landing.

  1. According to the parking survey conducted in the Larkspur Station Area Plan, there are 520 surplus parking stalls in the Larkspur Landing neighborhood. The survey found that these stalls will never be used by the buildings that own them.
  2. The larger garage under consideration by GGBHTD would add a net 569 new spaces, barely more than are available in Larkspur Landing at present.
  3. A shared parking arrangement would allow GGBHTD to use those 520 spaces.
  4. A shared parking arrangement would be beneficial to building owners, who would be able to charge the same parking fee as GGBHTD would on its parking lot.
  5. A shared parking arrangement would be beneficial to the owners of Marin Country Mart, whose parking lot is also at 100% capacity on weekends.

Implement a shuttle from the Transit Center to the Ferry Terminal.

  1. This replicates the promotional periods of the previous shuttle program, the only successful periods of that shuttle’s existence.
  2. Since this replicates the promotional periods, ridership estimates should reflect those of the promotional period. This is approximately 550 trips per day.
  3. Even if the shuttle has low ridership, the fare collected from each shuttle passenger remains $6 each way.
  4. Every passenger who takes the shuttle will open a parking spaces for a new passenger, which means another $2 parking fee and two $6 ferry fares.
  5. Therefore, each passenger on the shuttle will result in gross income of $26: two $6 fares from the shuttle passenger, two $6 fares from the driver who takes the shuttle passenger’s parking spot, and one $2 parking fee from the driver.
  6. If ridership reflects the promotional periods, GGBHTD would receive $785,000 in new revenue per year. Less the cost of a dedicated shuttle, this means GGBHTD would receive a $125,000 profit from the shuttle.

Option 1 is free except for staff time to make the arrangements with the City of Larkspur and neighbors. Option 2 is free to implement and would be profitable. In contrast, both the small and large garage will require subsidies to operate, on the order of $14,000 and $30,000 per year apiece, assuming the cost of replacement is included in budgeting plans.

I urge you to reject the garage proposals in favor of one or both of these alternatives. A chart of costs is included below. Detailed proposals can be found at:

http://theGreaterMarin.wordpress.org/tag/golden-gate-transit/

Thank you for your time.

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The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 4: The ferry’s capacity

Larkspur Landing

Larkspur Landing by cucchiaio, on Flickr

Larkspur Ferry Terminal (LFT) has an access problem: not enough people can get to the ferry. This shouldn’t be solved with parking garages, but rather with a shuttle and parking district in the short-term and transit-oriented development in the medium to long-term. But the terminal itself can only take so much ridership. In our fourth and final installment, we’ll examine the existing need, potential need, and the real and legal constraints on ferry service from LFT.

Need

At the moment, LFT is about 45 passengers over capacity on the morning rush hour departures. These benighted folks need to take an overflow shuttle bus into the city rather than the much more luxurious ferryboat. If GGT adds access for 500 more people to take the ferry, as seems to be desired, that would aggravate the overcrowding.

Adding capacity isn’t trivial. Though there are enough vessels to take people, there aren’t enough crew. Each vessel needs a captain and a crew, but these folks need to be paid for a full day, and there isn’t any need for a third full-time crew because of very low mid-day demand. While GGT is considering using one of their licensed office staff members as a captain for one morning departure as a cost-saving measure, there will be too much demand if ridership continues to increase and access is boosted as planned.

Rush hour, under the intense TOD scenario I outlined or from the SMART Station Area Plan, would probably bring about 350 extra riders, along with 120 or so from SMART and another 450 from parking expansion. If 70 percent of them use the ferry at the peak of the peak, that means another 600-650 ferry riders in the morning, or enough for one more peak hour ferry departure, which means yet another crew.

To make this make financial sense for GGT, the agency needs to figure out how to boost reverse-commute ridership and mid-day travel, which will mean more intense, or at least more interesting, development at Larkspur Landing. That, in turn, will probably require more trips. How far can GGT go?

Constraints

Corte Madera Channel. Image from NOAA. Click for much larger map.

Corte Madera Channel. Image from NOAA.

Like all transit, ferry capacity is measured in how many vehicles of what size can be accommodated per hour. Physically, LFT is constrained by the size of the 2-mile long Corte Madera Channel, which provides an outlet for the ferries. It’s wide enough (about 265 feet) that two ferries can pass, but with a depth of only 9 feet it’s relatively shallow, so boats with even a moderate draft (how deep the boat’s hull goes under water) won’t be able to use it.

Logistically, LFT is constrained by its need for high-speed catamarans, which have a lower passenger capacity than slower monohull vessels. The largest catamarans in GGT’s fleet can fit 450 people, while its slower Spaulding monohull vessels can fit 715. Passenger demand for fast service to the Embarcadero wins out over capacity here.

Environmentally, LFT is further constrained by the need to protect the marshland around the Corte Madera Channel. Too many departures and the wakes will erode what is very rich habitat. To help combat this problem, GGT has limited the number of crossings between LFT and San Francisco to 42 per day. Each crossing, whether from or to San Francisco, uses one of those slots.

GGT is further constrained by the number of high-speed vessels in its fleet. With only 4 vessels, it can only run 3 departures per hour.

A theoretical maximum

But if we leave aside the environmental and fleet concerns and focus solely on the physical and logistical ones, we find that GGT could probably get 6 departures per hour from LFT. The highest-capacity catamarans that can sail the channel can hold about 500 passengers, so we can get 3,000 peak passengers per hour from LFT to San Francisco and vice versa. This is approximately 1.5 highway lanes worth of capacity in each direction. The Ferry Building should be able to handle that kind of intensity from LFT, but GGT may need to find or build a new berth in San Francisco.

To achieve this level of service, GGT would need eight vessels total – seven running and one in reserve.* The MV Del Norte, runt of the fleet, would need to be retired and the other catamarans would need to be retrofitted to fit 500 passengers. Five new vessels and three refurbishments should add out to about $56 million. Operating cost per hour of this maximum service is $12,420, so if GGT ran this for four hours per weekday, it would be about $13.2 million annually, less passenger fares, of course. Anything above this level of service would require a deeper channel, which would be more expensive to build and maintain.

The real maximum

As mentioned above, not only does GGT not have the fleet to run its maximum service but it’s limited to only 42 crossings per day. Using up 24 of those on rush-hour service isn’t going to cut it. Instead, we can reasonably assume a capacity of three departures per hour, or about 1,350 passengers per hour. It’s not fantastic, but that’s how much capacity the system is considering.

If GGT adds more service than this, and they very likely will need to, it will need to carefully manage its fleet, perhaps by running an asynchronous schedule. Two vessels would run between San Francisco and LFT all day, while three would only run during peak hours and remain in reserve in San Francisco during the day. This should allow it to stay within its needed 42 crossings without allowing headways to get too high or sacrificing late-night and early-morning service.

Alternatively, GGT could request more crossings from neighbors and the state. This would require a new environmental impact report that would identify mitigating measures to lessen the damage on the nearby wetlands. Under this route there’s a chance their request would be denied.

GGT must smooth its ridership profile through TOD. There is no other way for it to achieve continued ridership growth in a sustainable way. Ever-higher peak demand will be burden the system with high crew costs and wasted capacity. GGT can do this by shaping the development at Larkspur Landing and inviting SMART to build closer to the terminal (and therefore draw San Francisco commuters heading north). But GGT must also be careful not to overload its southbound capacity. Even at its theoretical maximum, GGT’s Larkspur ferry cannot move as many people as a rail line, and it cannot just pack the ferries ever-tighter as BART does.

A better Larkspur Landing will have new development, new parking capacity, a reinstated shuttle, and enough ferry capacity going in both directions. It will be a net positive to the transit agency’s bottom line and to its mission to take people off the bridge. It will boost the profile and financial situation of Larkspur and Marin County. New parking garages are the easiest but least effective way to boost access to LFT and improve the financial situation of GGT. It’s vital the agency look beyond those garages and to a better, stronger future.

*The total minimum round-trip is 70 minutes: 5 minutes loading/unloading at LFT, 30 minutes transit to SF, 5 minutes loading/unloading at SF, and 30 minutes transit back to LFT. Longer headways that don’t evenly divide into 70 would need to add time to the layovers.

The Larkspur Ferry crunch, part 3: Development

by flyron on Panoramio

by flyron on Panoramio

Larkspur has a parking problem. More accurately, it has an access problem, one that can be solved by harnessing extant parking and by running a shuttle service. These are ultimately stop-gap measures. If Golden Gate Transit is serious about turning its ferry service into the workhorse it could be, it needs to start thinking beyond the park and ride model to ferry-oriented development.

The financial case

Transit-oriented development could make GGT a mountain of money. Though as a public agency GGT isn’t necessarily supposed to make money, profits mean more stable finances and stronger service.

From a strictly real estate perspective, GGT could earn $2-4 million per year by leasing its parking lot to development, assuming fairly low-rise (four story) development to match the height of existing buildings around the neighborhood. If GGT wants to build on the land itself rather than lease to a developer, it could reap the full value of its land. If developed like the draft Larkspur Station Area Plan, that means roughly $7.8 million in gross revenue from residences and retail. If GGT adds 50,000 square feet of office space, it could quadruple its income to $33.8 million.*

Because GGT land isn’t taxable thanks to its status as a government agency, Larkspur should encourage any residential development on the terminal parking lot to have small units like efficiencies, studios, and one-bedrooms. Childless households attracted to small units are less of a burden on city services, so the lack of parcel and property taxes won’t be as great a problem. Sales taxes would still come in from these households, though, so Larkspur would get some boost from GGT land use changes.

If private property owners follow through on the SMART Station Area Plan, of course, the City of Larkspur would be able to reap the full benefits of more intense use.

The access case

What prompts this analysis, of course, is the current lack of access to the ferry, not simple financial concerns. GGT thinks Larkspur ferry ridership is limited by the ability of people to get to and from the terminal and wants to break through that barrier.

Transit-oriented development of the whole neighborhood of the sort called for in the draft Station Area Plan will provide a way to break through this barrier. More people will be able to walk to the ferry terminal, and that’s a good thing. The existing residents of Larkspur Landing seem to be heavy users of the ferry, with 0.6 weekday trips per person.** We don’t know how many people may eventually live where the parking lot now stands, but there’s every reason to believe they will be just as apt to use the ferry.

Residential TOD is a good way to build in riders who won’t be deterred by the lack of parking. With SMART or a bus shuttle, there’s a good chance GGT could attract car-free or car-light residents, which would boost other transit ridership.

Office TOD could be even more valuable and attract the reverse-commuter. There’s a glut of counter-commute capacity from San Francisco. Attracting San Franciscans to the ferry would allow it to make the most of its existing resources and are an easy way to boost farebox recovery.

Getting these reverse-commuters will require some skill on the part of developers. Only 2 percent of Marin’s jobs are held by transit-commuting San Franciscans. There aren’t many San Francisco commuters to begin with, and most of them are driving, not taking transit. A combination of marketing office space to San Francisco businesses, free transfers to Muni and BART, and discounted fares for employees of Larkspur Landing businesses could help boost the number of reverse commuters.

Any redevelopment plans need to be carefully evaluated. The Larkspur parking lot is on old marshland that will be very expensive to redevelop. GGT land isn’t taxable, so developments’ strain on city and county services needs to be weighed carefully. Neighbors and businesses need buy-in to improve the area. And traffic, surface transit, and parking are all thorny problems that need to be addressed (and are bigger issues than can be addressed here).

Then again, Larkspur Ferry Terminal may not have the capacity for more ridership. There’s already an overflow bus for morning commuters, and GGT is considering adding another morning ferry to cope with demand. In our fourth and final installment, we’ll examine the ferry terminal’s capacity constraints and what to do about them.

*Larkspur offices lease for about $43 per square foot, and apartments in Marin rent for about $2,000 per month. Retail rents for about $20 per square foot.

**At the moment, 25 percent of ferry riders walk to the ferry. It’s very likely that most of these riders live in the nearby homes north of Larkspur Landing Circle, as those are the only homes within walking distance.

The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 2: Bring back the shuttle

Larkspur Ferry Terminal

Larkspur Ferry Terminal by Matt The Ogre, on Flickr

It’s impossible to discuss the access crunch at Larkspur Ferry Terminal without the subject of shuttle buses. It seems like an easy solution to the seemingly intractable problem of how to get people to the ferry, but history shows it’s not so straightforward.

As mentioned Monday, the shuttle was a monumental failure with riders, principally thanks to free parking. Though ridership would spike to 10 percent of ferry patrons during promotional periods, it would drop back down after the promotion was over. It’s tough to compete with free and convenient.

Pay parking eliminates this concern. Thanks to a quirk in Clipper, riders will get a free transfer while drivers will not, replicating the situation during promotions. It is not unreasonable to assume that 10 percent of riders, the same number who used it during promotions, would use the shuttle. At that rate, the shuttle would actually make a profit, but not like a normal bus may.

Normally, fares paid directly for the bus service goes towards the route’s bottom line. Greyhound makes a profit on its buses, while GGT wants to recover no less than 20 percent of its operating costs with fares. A ferry shuttle, however, would be a loss leader. The real money isn’t in the fare paid for the shuttle ride; it’s in the much higher fare paid for the ferry ride.

Since demand for the ferry already outstrips the ability of people to get to it, every ferry rider who switches from car to shuttle frees a parking spot available for someone new. If 10 percent of ferry riders switch to the shuttle, another 275 people can drive to the ferry. Our drivers would take round-trips, so GGT would earn $12 per day in fares from them. And, since they’re driving, they’d pay out another $2 per day as a parking charge. Add it up and GGT gets nearly $3,000 per new passenger per year, a total of $785,000 in new revenue.

A simpler shuttle program

The shuttle program used in the past was a complicated and vast thing, with shuttle routes overlapping existing routes inefficiently while running long distances.

There’s no need for that. While most ferry riders come from Central Marin, nearly all bus traffic runs through the San Rafael Transit Center. It’s impractical for a shuttle to replicate all these routes, and why should it? If it wants to pick up more passengers up 101 or down Miracle Mile or out in the Canal, it has ceased to be a ferry shuttle and has become part of the wider bus system.

As well, running the shuttle outside of a very restricted 6-minute Transit Center-Ferry Terminal circuit opens the route up to delays from traffic or crash. Given the often long waits between ferry departures, a delay could force a long wait on riders. If ferries are held to wait for the bus, it would add delays for the rest of the commute hour.

Unfortunately, a dedicated shuttle would be rather expensive. At $660,000 per year, it would make a $125,000 annual profit, but there’s a lot of waste. When ferry headways are long – up to 95 minutes – the shuttle wouldn’t have anything to do. GGT could realize significant cost savings by extending an existing route to the ferry terminal instead.

By extending a short, frequent route, like Route 35, GGT would be able to operate a shuttle for only $340,000 per year. When ferry headways are long, the bus would be able to continue on its normal route and head to the ferry terminal for shuttle runs. When ferry headways are short, every run would hit the ferry terminal.

It’s important to point out that, since GGT will charge for parking no matter the outcome of its parking expansion, it must implement a shuttle to take up the slack of those who don’t want to pay the charge. If GGT rejects the shuttle but institutes the parking charge it will face a decline in ferry ridership rather than an expansion.

This kind of shuttle is not on the radar of GGT officials. They cite the old system’s high cost, poor response, and ferry riders who said they want a shuttle for other people but not themselves. Though they want to time Route 29 to the ferries – a fantastic idea – they may miss an opportunity to add revenue to the system. Staff should draw up some shuttle options with projected ridership and combined ferry/bus revenue. The Board needs to see its options.

If reorganizing neighborhood parking is the “organization” side of ferry access, the parking charge is the “electronics” side of ferry access. The modest investment would add efficiency by segmenting the access market into those who really want or need to drive and those who would prefer to leave their car at home.

As we discussed Monday, there is no reason to invest in parking garages for Larkspur Ferry. Not only can GGT provide 520 more parking spaces for free but it can free up 275 parking spaces with a profitable shuttle service.

So we can accommodate plenty of Marin commuters, but GGT’s ferry faces other problems, namely severely underused afternoon and reverse-commute capacity. And if the aim is to boost ridership, there’s no more efficient way than increasing the number of people who walk. The next installment will tackle these issues with transit-oriented development.

 

The Larkspur ferry crunch, part 1: There’s already enough parking

All the parking lots in Larkspur Landing. Image from Google Maps.

All the parking lots in Larkspur Landing. Image from Google Maps.

There’s no question that Larkspur Ferry has an access problem. If you drive, there’s a vanishingly small chance you’ll get a parking space after 8:30am. If you don’t drive, your options are to live in the neighborhood, walk for almost a mile along the freeway, bike for 15 minutes from the Transit Center, or take the miserably slow GGT Route 29 bus.

In response to this perceived lack of access, GGT is again investigating some exceedingly expensive parking garages paid for by a new parking fee. (They had last discussed a parking solution in 2007, when ridership was about what it is today.) While this would expand access, this solution fails to take into account the breadth of options available, including 520 unused parking spaces in Larkspur Landing that already exist.

Organization before electronics before concrete

An old adage marks best practice for facilities design: organization before electronics before concrete. The first, organization, rearranges existing resources to maximize their utilization. The second, electronics, upgrades the systems you already have so you can make even better use of your resources. The third, concrete, adds resources to your now-optimized pool. By prioritizing cheaper solutions before expensive ones, organizations can save a lot of money.

In the case of Larkspur Terminal, GGT’s supply of access to the ferry (the parking spaces, bus seats, bicycle racks, housing units, and office space in the vicinity) is the resource. As currently designed, there is a shortage of access, but GGT doesn’t need to add more garages just yet.

The Larkspur Station Area Plan revealed that, during the day, 520 parking spaces in the neighborhood went unoccupied. Though GGT does have a parking problem on its own property, the area’s parking supply is more than ample to meet the demand.

Graphic and data from City of Larkspur.

Graphic and data from City of Larkspur. There’s a lot of demand for parking, but a lot of unused space, too. PDF here.

These spaces aren’t being used because the parking supply isn’t well-organized. People driving to the ferry have the option of parking for free on the street, for free in the ferry parking lot, or for $4 per day at the Marin Airporter. The other lots aren’t an option to them, as they’re reserved for more office workers than exist and patrons of Marin Country Mart who mostly come on the weekend.

Through a reorganization of the neighborhood’s parking supply, GGT could expand ferry parking by 520 spaces essentially for free.

GGT, Larkspur, and the businesses in Larkspur Landing would need to work together to figure out the precise rules, but the core of any plan would be pricing: a $2 charge per day for anyone parking in the area who doesn’t get parking validated by a retail store or who doesn’t have an employee parking pass. The owner of each lot would get income from their charge. Larkspur would earmark on-street parking charges to neighborhood improvements.

Coincidentally, 520 spaces is nearly the same number of spaces GGT wants to add in a large, 969-space garage. Since it would be built on 400 existing parking spaces, the garage would net 569 parking spaces. Unlike the essentially free 520, however, the 569 spaces would cost an astounding $44,000 apiece.

No need for concrete

Organization before electronics before concrete means other options should be explored before investing in costly new infrastructure. An examination of the neighborhood finds that parking already exists to meet demand, if GGT can harness it.

Of course, if the politics prove impossible and those open spaces can’t be used for ferry riders, GGT will need to turn to the parking equivalent of electronics: a shuttle from the Transit Center. We’ll tackle that question next.

Larkspur’s SMART station: Answering the critiques

Last time, we examined how the station got to be placed where it is. The gap in building the first and second segments gives activists a window to try to change the mind of SMART staff and board members, and by the looks of things they’ll need the extra time.

After seven years, the planned site of the Larkspur station is pretty well set in stone, at least if you ask the agency. Whenever asked to move it, SMART has taken the position that the location is final.

This, to put it mildly, is frustrating.

How can the concerns raised by Larkspur years ago and those raised by SMART be addressed?

Larkspur

When Larkspur first voiced opposition to a ferry terminal station, the city council was opposed to the project entirely and objected on three grounds: glare, aesthetics, and a desire to avoid renegotiating Marin Country Mart’s planning documents.

The concern over glare is so odd it hardly deserves mention. Sun glints off parked cars in the ferry terminal and all over the neighborhood. Adding a train would not increase glare.

A train viaduct in Berlin. Image by Jarrett Walker.

A train viaduct in Berlin. Image by Jarrett Walker.

Aesthetic concerns deserve more of a mention. Larkspur argued that views of the Bay would be blocked by an elevated structure and the neighborhood would be marred by a rail viaduct.

Though the vista is dominated by the ferry parking lot, viaducts are very rarely attractive things, at least in the United States. Since the train would run through the parking lot of a major shopping center and across the field of view of some of the stores, SMART should take a page from Germany and incorporate the shopping center into the viaduct itself.

A huge number of trains in Berlin run on elevated tracks, often running right through the city. Unlike the loud and grungy viaducts in Chicago or New York City, these have been integrated into the city by becoming buildings in themselves. Cafes, shops, and restaurants have taken up residence beneath the rails. In essence, the viaducts are very long buildings with trains running on the rooftop.

Marin Country Mart wants to emulate a maritime village, something vaguely European. By using the viaduct as buildings, Marin Country Mart could emulate something actually European. Though it would require cooperation from the SMART board, it would ameliorate the aesthetic concerns of the neighbors and add value to the shopping center’s owners.

Marin Country Mart brings us to the third objection: planning. Larkspur officials in 2006 did not want to revise the Planned Unit Development plan that governs the shopping center, something that would need to happen if SMART extends a viaduct through their property, as two buildings would have to come down on the edge of the property.

But if both parties are willing to renegotiate, there’s no reason why Larkspur couldn’t amend the plan. Extending SMART through the shopping center makes a more direct connection between the train and shopping. That means value added to the center, especially if the viaduct can be made up as nice as the ones in Berlin.

SMART

Now that opposition in Larkspur has passed, SMART itself stands opposed to an in-terminal station. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly intransigence. It’s not in The Plan, so therefore shouldn’t be added to The Plan. But publicly, SMART will likely say that it’s an issue of cost (too high) and ridership (won’t change much). These are things we can assess, though intransigence might go a bit deeper.

For cost, elevated rail structures like this one typically cost about $70 million per mile to build, including stations. SMART would need to build a viaduct 2,200 feet long, or about 0.4 miles. Multiply that against the average cost per mile and one arrives at $30 million. Let’s add in $150,000 for building demolition, $100,000 for EIR amendments, and a generous $1 million for land acquisition, for a total cost of $31.3 million. That brings the cost of the whole system from $724 million to $755 million.

This is a bargain, especially for a project of regional significance. If SMART extends to the Larkspur terminal, it could transport a significant number of ferry riders. If it transports even a tenth of them (540 per weekday), the project will cost about $96,000 per trip, not counting the people who will occupy the now-freed spaces in the parking lot. The Greenbrae Interchange Project, in contrast, will add meaningful capacity for about 825 trips* in the peak hour at a cost of about $173,000 each.

Intransigence

SMART staff have dug in their heels on this project, but that’s not to say they can’t be persuaded or forced to come up with a good plan. However, will will take time.

The first thing you can do is understand the costs involved, as above. While the numbers in this post are estimates, SMART has not studied the issue in depth; they know just a hair more than I do about potential costs and ridership. Until there is a proper study, we cannot know for certain how much it will cost, nor how much benefit those monies will buy us.

The second thing you can do is start to lobby boards, commissions, and SMART staff. Since a ferry/train connection is a project of regional importance, TAM, SCTA, and MTC should rank it high on their list of congestion mitigation projects. $31.3 million is a pittance compared to what is doled out in a given year, and this is a critical link in the North Bay’s transportation infrastructure. Residents of San Francisco and Sonoma have leverage as well, as the station will effect the usefulness of their own transportation systems.

Golden Gate Transit needs to push SMART to improve access, too. This will directly benefit GGT’s ferry business and increase the value of their park and ride lot, should they ever decide to lease it to developers.

Find your SMART, SCTA, MTC, TAM, and GGBHTD representatives and tell them you want SMART in Larkspur.

*This is the number of new northbound cars that will be accommodated on the freeway. The project won’t add any southbound or HOV capacity that will be used.

Larkspur has a second chance to do SMART right

Elevated Ferry Station

The original plan for an elevated station. Image from SMART.

While Sonoma gets to reap the benefits of SMART, including a $15 million expansion of the IOS to the Santa Rosa Airport, Marin’s commuting public rightly grouses that it doesn’t serve their needs. Yet by ignoring Larkspur Landing for now, SMART has a chance to do what it should have done from the start and plan for a station in the ferry terminal.

A core principal of transit planning is connectivity. Any network is only as good as the strength of its connections, and transit is not excluded. The strongest sort of transit connection is the cross-platform connection, which allows you to hop off your train or bus, cross the platform to your transfer and be on your way. It’s like switching planes in an airport by walking one gate over.

In contrast, a weak transit connection forces riders to leave one station, walk a couple of blocks, and enter another station. Rather than boarding a connecting flight at the gate next to yours, we need to hike across the airport to another terminal entirely. Though this may be tolerable once in a while, as a daily commute it can crush even the hardiest transit enthusiast.

Sadly, SMART has opted against convenience and in favor of soul-crushing. Current plans call for locating the ferry station a half mile from the ferry terminal, requiring transferring riders to either walk along parking lots and unfriendly streets or wait around for a shuttle. A commute that might already involve 2 transfers will become one involving 3.

Larkspur residents, most of whom who won’t even get direct SMART access, rightly complain that this makes little sense. The Station Area Plan for the Larkspur Landing neighborhood calls for relocating the station into the terminal and decries the poor site chosen by the SMART board.

SMART’s draft environmental impact report contained a draft plan (very large PDF) to put the station in the ferry terminal. Back when station sites were being planned, staff created four alternate proposals for Larkspur, including two with better access to the ferry. The best one placed the station adjacent to the current terminal entrance at the end of a half-mile of elevated track. Given the current going rate for elevated rail, this option would cost about $30 million plus land acquisition costs. That’s about one-fifth the cost of the Greenbrae Interchange Project next door.

Yet at the request of the Larkspur City Council (PDF), SMART went for the station plan staff explicitly recommended against. The city complained that the removal of two buildings would require modifying the plan that governs Marin Country Mart, and that an elevated rail line would obstruct views of the Bay. They also were concerned about cost, though Larkspur wouldn’t need to pay for the extension. Another concern raised earlier by staff is that a station in the ferry terminal would make extensions to Corte Madera or San Quentin more difficult.

Though these concerns are well-intentioned and should be addressed in any plan to relocate the station, it’s foolish to scuttle a dramatic service improvement over parking lots and fantasy expansions that are decades from reality.

And here is where we have a new opportunity. By splitting construction of the line in two, SMART has given Larkspur residents a chance to change that seven-year-old bad decision. Nobody likes to run across an airport to catch a plane, and no commuter likes to walk across a half-mile of parking lots and traffic to make a transfer. Larkspur needs reverse its earlier request and demand a world-class transit connection, and residents should ask for the same. And SMART should listen.

Next time, I’ll examine the city council’s original concerns and how they might be addressed.