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PS: SMART getting pumped up
Friday 20 Jun 2008, 05:36
Filed under: Marin, Railroad, SMART, Sonoma

Ch-ching at the gas pump could mean choo-choo for commuter rail

by Peter Seidman
Pacific Sun Staff
The stratospheric increase in gas prices is starting to change transit behavior across the country. Proponents of the commuter rail line between Marin and Sonoma counties may get a boost from that same stratospheric increase when a new sales tax measure for the rail line goes on the ballot in November.

“Four-dollar a gallon gas certainly got people’s attention,” says Chris Coursey, community outreach and education manager at Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. And in the coming years, “Four-dollar gas may seem quaint,” says Marge Macris, co-chair of the Marin committee, and the joint Marin and Sonoma committee, both of which are aiming to push a ballot measure over the top in November.

Voters in the SMART district, which includes Marin and Sonoma counties, three times have turned down an increase in sales tax to pay for the system. But a look at gas prices shows that at least some of those voters might look at train transportation with a fresh eye.

In 1990, when the first proposal to run commuter trains between the two counties was on the ballot, the average price of a gallon of gas in the Bay Area was $1.05. That’s according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The next time a sales tax hike for trains was on the ballot was in 1998, when the average price per gallon in the Bay Area was $1.42.

Skip ahead to 2006, the last time a sales tax measure (one-quarter cent for 20 years) was on the ballot, and gas prices hit an average of $2.36 a gallon in the Bay Area.

Anyone who drives knows the cost of a gallon of gas now is in an even pricier neighborhood, at around $4.50 a gallon. And it looks as though it goes up almost every day.

That kind of dramatic increase in gas, even from 2006 levels to today’s cost, could push more voters in the SMART district toward thinking that setting up a train system for the future transportation portfolio in the North Bay might not be such a bad idea. Riding the train, they might think as gas prices rise, is better than paying $100 for a tank of gas.

It’s not yet certain that SMART actually will put another sales tax proposal on the November ballot, but it’s highly likely. The SMART board is scheduled to meet next month, when board members will make their final decision. If they go ahead and vote to proceed, it’s a sure bet that when SMART mounts an election campaign, gas prices and pocket-book issues will play a larger role on SMART’s persuasion agenda than they have in the past.

There’s statistical evidence that gas prices have hit a level at which motorists across the country are changing their driving habits. This month, the American Public Transportation Association released data showing that “Americans took 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first three months of 2008. That is almost 85 million more trips than last year for the same time period.”

President of APTA, William W. Miller says one of the main causative factors for the increase is clear: “There’s no doubt that the high gas prices are motivating people to change their travel behavior. More and more people have decided that taking public transportation is the quickest way to beat high gas prices.”

Of all forms of public transportation, according to APTA, light rail showed the biggest increase in ridership. That category, which includes streetcars, trolleys and “heritage trolleys,” increased its ridership in the first three months of this year by an average of 6.1 percent over the same time period in 2007.

The second largest increase in year-over-year ridership came on commuter rail systems like SMART. The commuter rail lines had a 5.5 percent average year-over-year increase in ridership numbers for the first three months of this year.

When looking at all forms of public transportation, says APTA, ridership on public transportation is at its highest level in 50 years.

At the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, an increase in ridership also is evident this year. Although ferry ridership has fluctuated due to a ferry in dry dock for service, bus ridership shows some interesting spikes. In February, for instance, ridership increased 10.4 percent over numbers posted for the same month in 2007. In April, the increase in ridership was 11.5 percent.

Spikes in gas prices probably played a significant role in transit riders’ rationale for taking the bus. Although some months show relatively modest declines in ridership, the overall bus ridership trend at Golden Gate is upward.

The environmental impact report for the SMART proposal included conservative ridership figures, says Coursey. The proposal calls for a rail system between the two counties that will feature rail service along 70 miles of Northwestern Pacific track from Cloverdale to Larkspur Landing, with 14 stops along the route. SMART would run 14 round trips during weekday commute hours.

After the election defeat in 2006, SMART proponents pushed forward a proposal for an additional weekend service that, if approved by SMART and voters, would run four trips on the weekends. That addition would add an element of leisure transportation between the Larkspur Ferry Terminal and the wine country that could garner votes, especially in Sonoma County. And there are Marin residents who think taking a train up to Sonoma for the day sounds like an attractive mini-getaway.

The SMART environmental report estimated that about 5,300 passengers would ride commute trains each day. That number, say opponents, is way too low to justify the cost of the system. But, says Coursey, that 5,300 number was estimated in 2005, when gas was about $1.55 a gallon.

Using a conservative forecast, Coursey says, SMART estimates that when gas reaches $5 a gallon, ridership will increase to 6,000 riders a day. “And for each dollar that gas goes up there’s another 15 percent to 20 percent increase in ridership.” And if public transportation ridership patterns continue to their upward swing, those numbers could be even more beneficial to commuter rail systems like SMART.

But opponents are firm in their criticism that spending public money on a train system is spending money on an inefficient form of transportation that’s “really 19th century technology.” That’s what Joy Dahlgren of Marin Citizens for Effective Transportation says. The organization was on the leading edge of the opposition in Marin in 2006, when the proposed sales tax measure failed by just 1.3 percent of the total vote in both counties. (It actually passed the critical two-thirds margin in Sonoma County, but failed in Marin, dragging down the total vote count.)

Dahlgen says trains made sense in the past, when large numbers of workers commuted from outlying areas to a single large factory, for instance. Even today, the Altamont Commuter Express system is successful, she says, because it goes to Silicon Valley. Marin and Sonoma counties just don’t have the kind of population and the kinds of large workplaces to support a train-based commuter system, she adds. Buses are much more efficient. Dahlgren also says a much better use of public funds would be to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles.

But, say SMART proponents, Marin and Sonoma counties should have both a bus system and a train system, and increasing fuel efficiency stalls progress in the long run.

“Even if you increase fuel efficiency significantly,” says Marin Supervisor Charles McGlashan, who’s also chair of SMART board, “if you don’t deal with congestion, and people live farther and farther from where they work, it completely cancels out the benefits from more fuel efficient vehicles. History bears that out over the decades, when people obtained more and more fuel-efficient cars, they moved farther out, and our climate gas footprint has gotten worse and worse.”

And as for a lack of large employers along the rail line, McGlashan points to Firemen’s Fund, Autodesk and the county’s Civic Center building in rebuttal. With shuttle buses taking people from their workplace to train stations, local traffic could decline in congested areas like downtown San Rafael, say SMART advocates. Dahlgren says she doesn’t trust employers to actually provide those shuttles. But SMART proponents say the proposed train system already has commitments from some of the major employers.

Creating a public transportation system that includes buses and trains is the best way to plan for the next 50 years when it comes to regional transportation in the North Bay, say McGlashan and other SMART proponents. That’s true, says Macris, and she adds another element to the equation. When SMART proponents begin putting a campaign strategy into practice, “We’re not just going to use an environmental argument or just use an economic argument. I think it has to involve both of those, as well the whole social equity idea that people need another way to get around.” The strategy, she adds, mirrors the Marin Countywide Plan, which has three tenets: environment, economy and equity. “I think that SMART fits that very well,” says Macris, who is a former Marin County planning director and current co-chair of the Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative.

One of the added benefits of a train system, say SMART advocates, is that it would promote transit-based housing development along the rail line, locations ideal for affordable housing.

Citizens for Effective Transportation and other critics maintain their objection based on the expense of an investment that, they say, will bring insufficient return. They point to increasing cost estimates, which now peg the train system at needing $1.6 billion to become reality. That’s $200 million more than previous estimates.

But SMART backers say the increased cost is to be expected, the same way cost increases come along with almost any major proposed project that gets stretched out over years. Increases in materials, labor and all the elements that go into building a train system have risen over time—-just like gas prices.

The increased estimates are reasonable, says Coursey. The original projected revenue estimates in the environmental report were conservative, and SMART should see more money coming in via the sales tax hike than envisioned in the projections.

The environmental report for the rail system projects no growth in sales tax for the first three years and “ramps up to about 4 percent over the course of the 20-year period” of the tax, according to Coursey. Marin sales tax revenue has averaged an annual increase of about 5-percent. In Sonoma County, the annual increase has averaged 6 percent. Looking at the numbers that way, enough revenue will come into SMART to make the project work, say SMART officials.

Dahlgren doesn’t buy it. “The sales gas isn’t going to be sufficient to pay for the services they’re promising. This is both dishonest and risky because these things tend to be bailed out.”

That argument raises a question: Is spending public money on a transportation system that uses trains a good investment for the future of the North Bay—-even if additional public money is required? Obviously Citizens for Effective Transportation and other SMART critics think it’s unwise. But proponents of what’s called an intermodal transportation picture for the North Bay think otherwise.

In addition to holding the promise of reducing freeway traffic congestion and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the possibility of stimulating affordable housing along the train route, a commuter line would add another transportation mode for the two counties, another transportation alternative that could serve the area into what seems to be an uncertain gasoline-based transportation future. Call it insurance. You have to pay for it, but it’s handy when you need it.

Talk about the county placing a sales tax measure on the ballot to help pay for a wide variety of services, including open space maintenance, farm preservation and wildfire safety, has created the possibility of competing tax measures on the November ballot. But it now looks as though the county’s tax measure won’t be ready for November. To complicate matters, the governor has sent up a trial balloon, lifting the possibility of a one-cent sales tax.

Nevertheless, SMART intends to continue on the route it began traveling in 2006, and the board in all probability will vote to proceed with putting the sales tax measure on the November ballot.

“It’s not just a dollars and cents issue,” says Macris, referring to global warming, congestion and affordable housing. “We have real problems [in the North Bay], and we all have to recognize that we need to change the way we operate, and (SMART) is one thing we can do.”

Going on the November ballot is critical, says McGlashan. “It’s our last, best chance for a long time. It’s do or die.”

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