Commuter train a hard sell
for two California counties
Brake lights start glaring around 4:30 every weekday afternoon.
Cars, hundreds of them during evening rush hour, slow to a crawl as they approach the infamous “Novato Narrows,” a point on Highway 101 just north of this small Marin County town where Highway 101 shrinks from six lanes to four – but for the second time in eight years, voters are being offered a chance to raise taxes for an alternative: “Measure R” would fund rail commuter service between California’s northern Sonoma County and southeastern Marin County.
Measure R has spurred heated debate among odd coalitions. Business groups that generally disdain tax hikes are siding with Sonoma County officials and some environmentalists, contending that rail is an answer to ever more cars on the area’s one major highway, the Sacramento Bee reported on Friday.
Meanwhile, taxpayer groups, some Marin County officials and other environmentalists claim Measure R would create a costly boondoggle for a relative few probable riders.
Both sides agree that congestion has so intensified on Highway 101, and population growth estimates for the area are so high, that even a commuter train is unlikely to significantly reduce freeway traffic.
“You just can’t get on top of congestion. It’s going to always be with us,” said Bill Kortum, a Measure R proponent and founder of Sonoma County Conservation Action. “If you didn’t have the train, the congestion will be that much worse.”
In 1998, Marin and Sonoma voters approved advisory measures endorsing the concept of commuter rail but rejected separate proposals to raise sales taxes by one-half cent to pay for it.
Since then, traffic on Highway 101 has only grown worse. Two lengths of it between Marin City and Highway 37 are among the 10 most congested freeway stretches in the Bay Area. The Novato Narrows and the Santa Rosa portion of Highway 101 are not in the top 10, but to frustrated commuters the slow spots move as if they were at the top of the list.
Two years ago, the state legislature created the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District, whose goal was to establish a commuter rail system.
Measure R, on both counties’ ballots, would raise sales taxes by one-quarter cent over 20 years to help finance a 70-mile “SMART train” on little-used tracks the district owns between Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County and Larkspur in southeastern Marin County.
Trains would run only during weekday rush hours and once at midday; a ticket would cost about $4. Supporters envision the line using cars with diesel engines that burn clean fuels. The system would cost an estimated $400 million to get started, and $17.6 million annually to operate.
Opponents predict that commuters to San Francisco would be unwilling to drive to a train station, ride to Larkspur, then walk a quarter-mile to catch a ferry for a trip across the bay – when driving or riding a bus would deliver them in about the same time.
They note the project’s environmental impact report foresees only 5,300 passengers riding the train daily by 2010, and slightly fewer in 2025 – the result of improvements to Highway 101 that would free up space and attract more drivers.
In contrast, the Caltrain line, which links Gilroy and San Francisco, carries more than 35,000 commuters daily.
The SMART train “doesn’t reduce traffic,” said Fred Levin, head of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association. “It isn’t convenient and it doesn’t take people directly where they want to go.”
Mike Arnold, co-chairman of the Marin Citizens for Effective Transportation, which opposes the measure, said there are other effective and cheaper alternatives, such as busways or high-occupancy toll lanes.
“We are not anti-rail,” he said, but “rail does not work in all cases.”
Complicating matters further is opposition by the Larkspur City Council, which cited parking and aesthetic concerns that it believes have not been resolved.
Supporters, though, insist the environmental impact report’s authors adopted very conservative ridership estimates.
Kortum noted that planned improvements at the Novato Narrows and other parts of Highway 101 would not be completed for another 12 to 15 years. With another 250,000 residents expected to move into Sonoma County by 2050, he added, the attraction of commuter rail would only grow.
“When people find out that it’s convenient... they will take it,” said Jack Macy, former chairman of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a lot less expensive. It’s a lot less nerve-racking.”
Wisconsin offers freight rail upgrades cash
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle said last week his state has given 10 state awards totaling $11.3 million. They will be used to construct freight rail-related facilities and upgrade rail infrastructure as part of overall efforts to support job growth and Wisconsin’s agricultural economy.
“Freight rail is a major component of Wisconsin’s transportation system, moving some 150 million tons of commodities every year,” Doyle said. “These awards will help retain jobs and spur economic growth in many rural communities while strengthening our agricultural economy.”
The Wisconsin DOT is administering eight of the awards totaling $7.48 million through the Freight Railroad Infrastructure Improvement Program, according to the Beaver Dam, Wis., Daily Citizen.
A revolving loan program, FRIIP awards are provided to private industries, railroads, and local governments to improve rail infrastructure, highway-grade crossings, and to construct new rail-served facilities, with the overall goal to boost economic development and jobs. As FRIIP loans are repaid, the dollars are used to help fund new projects.
Most of the work on the recently-approved FRIIP loan projects will begin in spring 2007. FRIIP award recipients include a $1.2 million loan to Duffy Grain Inc. of Columbus, to help construct a 590,000-bushel capacity grain storage bin, and a freight car scale and unloading pit at Duffy’s Twin Line Road location west of Marshall. The improvements are expected to enhance grain prices for weighed carloads and minimize spoilage due to the expanded indoor storage space. The Wisconsin & Southern Railroad serves the facility.
A $1 million loan to Grand River Co-op will help construct a new 48 by 116-foot dry fertilizer storage building, storage for 350,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer, along with renovation of existing spur tracks and construction of 735 feet of new track. The new facilities will benefit the farm community by allowing the co-op to purchase and store fertilizer when prices are favorable. Wisconsin & Southern Railroad will ship the commodities. The state and East Wisconsin Counties Railroad Consortium own the rail corridor.
APTA is meeting in San Jose
North American public transportation officials are meeting this week at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Annual Meeting at the Convention Center in San Jose. This year, APTA expects nearly 2,000 public transportation leaders to attend the conference which will address all aspects of this $42 billion industry. The meeting began Sunday and ends Wednesday.
Issues covered at the conference include the impact of high gas prices on public transit ridership, the “greening” of public transit systems, managing transit security and disaster risk exposure, and technology management and the importance of technology in the public transit industry, including emerging security technologies.
Other topics will include transit-oriented development’s link to affordable housing, building grassroots support for public transportation, and the latest on APTA’s industry standards.
In addition, APTA and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) offered several technical tours that will highlight the best in public transit innovation today.