Published Wednesday, November 1, 2006, by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Building as if the train is coming
By Chris Coursey
The Press Democrat
The town of Windsor will host a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday
for a $1.4 million "intermodal station" along the railroad tracks
adjacent to the Town Green Village.
"Intermodal" signifies a mix of transportation choices, including
buses, carpools and, of course, a commuter train.
But if they build a station, does that mean a train will come?
Voters Tuesday will answer that question, and conventional wisdom
predicts the tax measure for the SMART commuter train will have a
tough time at the polls.
It's got a high bar to clear: 66.6 percent of voters must say "yes"
to pass this quarter-percent sales tax.
That's not impossible. After all, both Marin and Sonoma counties in
recent years have adopted sales-tax increases to pay for improvements
to roads, highways and transit.
But a train is different, detractors say. It won't be used by nearly
as many people. It won't unravel the tie-ups on Highway 101. It
won't be available 24/7.
All true. But one issue that's been lost in the debate is that
cities up and down the spine of 101 have been planning -- and
building -- for a future that includes the SMART train as a critical
piece of regional transportation infrastructure.
What happens if the train never arrives at the station?
The Windsor groundbreaking makes a timely anecdote, but the question
is about more than a depot.
Even more dependent on the re-birth of passenger rail is the kind of
downtown development that has been embraced by nearly every Sonoma
County city along the SMART corridor.
Santa Rosa in the past two weeks has approved nearly 400 new condos
in three high-rises along a two-block stretch of Third Street. On
the other side of 101, next to Santa Rosa's historic train depot,
another 250 units are proposed as part of a big new mixed-use
project that also includes a food and wine center. More than 200
other downtown housing units are either approved, under construction
or recently completed.
In Petaluma, a downtown transformation eventually will include some
1,600 residential units within reasonable walking distance of the
In Windsor, the 250 condos slated for Town Green Village are just
part of a city-centered focus that will include several other multi-
story, mixed-use projects aimed at creating a downtown around the
In Cotati, planners envision 150 new residences in two- and three-
story mixed-use buildings lining the Plaza and Old Redwood Highway.
In Rohnert Park, the old Agilent campus is slated to become Sonoma
Mountain Village, with some 1,800 new housing units within a half-
mile of Cotati's train depot.
Do you notice a pattern here?
In a region where "sprawl" has become a dirty word, planners are
directing development into the center of cities. That philosophy,
combined with urban growth limits, is pushing up housing densities
in every city core along Highway 101.
The idea is a good one. It will make our downtowns livelier places,
drawing residents and visitors to shops and restaurants and offices.
It will take some of the pressure off of the undeveloped land
surrounding cities as people moving downtown free up existing single-
But all of these people living downtown, working downtown, shopping
downtown and visiting downtown are going to need an alternate way
in and out of downtown. Even though thousands of new homes and
businesses will be built, there won't be any new ways to get in and
out of our cities.
Unless, of course, we tax ourselves for the SMART train.
Sonoma County's new direction toward high-density development
certainly doesn't require a train. On the other hand, it won't
really be complete without one.