SMART tax measure debate hinges on ridership numbers
- Published Wednesday, September 27, 2006, by Petaluma Argus-Courier
Who will ride the train
Arguments for, against Measure R hinge on ridership numbers and
whether it's worth a quarter-cent sales tax increase
By Corey Young
It should be easy for North Bay voters to remember that Measure "R"
is about "rail."
What could be harder to understand is the slew of numbers that will
be coming at them over the next month, as groups on opposite sides
try to use the same studies and spending plans to offer very
different conclusions about rail service.
Voters are sure to read and hear figures like "5,300" and "230" a
lot as the Nov. 7 election draws near. What they mean for North Bay
commuter rail and the future of transportation in Marin and Sonoma
counties depends on who you ask.
For Measure R supporters, a key figure is 5,300 -- the number of
train riders expected each day when service from Cloverdale to
Larkspur begins in 2010.
The "very conservative" estimate could climb as high as 7,400 if
gas prices jump and freeway projects remain unfinished in 20 years,
according to this summer's environmental impact report prepared for
SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district.
That means the train is a clear alternative for North Bay residents
heading south for jobs, supporters say.
"It's a transportation system that doesn't rely on 101," said Nick
Caston, co-chair of the Yes-on-R campaign.
With shuttle and bus service at station stops, a Larkspur station
near the ferry terminal and a pedestrian/bike path along the tracks,
the SMART train is envisioned as the most significant transit
improvement seen in the North Bay in decades.
But hold on, say opponents -- let's back up to those ridership
Critics of the rail plan have seized on the EIR as evidence the
train will make no difference in how the vast majority of commuters
get to work. For starters, they say SMART is misleading the public
by making the initial ridership projection of 5,300 sound like 5,300
separate individuals riding the train.
But it's actually 5,300 one-way trips -- meaning only 2,650 actual
bodies, opponents contend.
"It's a pittance," said Mike Arnold, whose group Marin Citizens for
Effective Transportation is one of several organizations opposing
the train under the moniker "Citizens Opposed to SMART."
"If the train were an alternative, more people would take it,"
Arnold said. But most commuters will stay away for one key reason,
he said -- "The train isn't going to take you to work."
By the time a commuter drives, takes a bus, bicycles or walks to a
train station, gets on a train, then makes a third leg of his/her
journey to the office, any savings over a freeway trip is long gone,
"The big mark against the train is convenience," Arnold said.
He and other critics, including Marin and Sonoma taxpayers groups,
are also pounding away at a portion of the EIR that projects, in
20 years, 230 passengers coming into Marin County from Sonoma
during the morning rush.
"That communicates to Marin County, `No,'" he said.
SMART said opponents' use of the 230 number without other related
data "is an example of using `the numbers game' to mislead."
The agency pointed out in an e-mailed response to anti-train
arguments that while a total of 230 people might be on the morning
trains that travel the stretch between Petaluma and Novato, a lot
more will be riding on other segments of the 70-mile line.
The 230 figure doesn't take into account the number of people
who get on in Healdsburg or Windsor and get off in Santa Rosa or
Petaluma, before the train crosses the county line, SMART said. It
doesn't reflect the riders in north Marin who take the train further
south or the number of riders on northbound trains in the evening
For example, supporters point to the rest of the chart from which
the 230 figure came, noting that 917 people will be riding morning
trains just between the two Santa Rosa stops. In Petaluma, 412
people will be onboard between the east side and downtown stations,
with 231 disembarking at the Lakeville Street railroad depot during
Regarding the total daily ridership in 2010 -- the 5,300 passenger
trips -- SMART said it's not a simple doubling of round trips.
Many transit systems take passengers only one way, either for people
who work in different cities on different days of the week or who
catch a ride back with a friend or family member, said Lillian
Hames, SMART's project director. In some areas, those people
account for up to a quarter of all passenger trips, she said.
"You have more people taking transit in the mornings and less at
night," Hames said.
She said other "soft factors," such as people finding the train
a more enjoyable commute or more park-and-ride sites added near
stations, are not considered in ridership models. Those unknowns
have contributed to higher-than-projected numbers of passengers
on commuter rail systems throughout the country, she said.
"There are a number of things like that which contribute to
under-reporting the estimates," she said.
So Measure R supporters have labeled the published ridership
estimates "conservative" while also highlighting rail systems in
Denver, St. Louis and Portland where estimates were exceeded by
as much as 67 percent.
"I would anticipate that we'll see those numbers go up," Caston
said. "We already have a number of employers along the rail line
committed to providing incentives to their employees" to ride the
Arnold, whose group favors expanded express-bus service in place of
rail, said Marin remains strongly opposed to rail despite a SMART
poll earlier this year showing 72 percent approval there.
"It's a very different climate down here than Sonoma County," Arnold
said. "There are no benefits to this thing in Marin."
Because two-thirds of voters in the two-county area need to approve
Measure R for it to pass, opponents expect Marin's opposition to
drag down higher Sonoma support and ultimately doom the measure.
"Sonoma County's going to have to have a pretty big vote to beat
out Marin County's bringing it down," he said.
But Caston said when voters hear the benefits of the rail plan,
they're sure to jump onboard.
"For a quarter-cent, we'll be able to reduce air pollution, reduce
congestion and provide an alternative to 101," he said. "The largest
number of commuters clogging up 101 are going from Sonoma to Marin.
The real key is getting them where they need to go. We already own
the right-of-way; all we need to do is get it up and running."
WHERE WOULD IT GO?
- Train would travel from Cloverdale to Larkspur, stopping in
Petaluma at North McDowell Boulevard/Corona Road and the downtown
rail depot on Lakeville Street.
- Two stops each are planned in Novato, San Rafael, and for
northbound passengers, Santa Rosa. The southbound end of the line
is less than four blocks to Larkspur ferry terminal.
- Service would begin in late 2009 or early 2010.
- Fare would depend on length of trip, but average ticket expected
to cost $4.
MEASURE R, BY THE NUMBERS
- Would increase sales tax by a quarter-cent for 20 years.
- Would raise $33 million a year for a total of $668 million.
- Requires two-thirds of voters in both Marin and Sonoma counties
Contact Corey Young at cyoung@...