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SMART tax measure debate hinges on ridership numbers

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  • 9/27 Petaluma Argus
    Published Wednesday, September 27, 2006, by Petaluma Argus-Courier Who will ride the train Arguments for, against Measure R hinge on ridership numbers and
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2006
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      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
      Argus-Courier Staff

      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
      numbers.

      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,
      he said.

      "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
      commute.

      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
      the morning.

      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
      train.

      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
      for approval.


      Contact Corey Young at cyoung@...
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