By Richard Hall
POSTED: 01/26/17, 4:53 PM PST | UPDATED: 10 HRS AGO
Drivers and transit center users in San Rafael are anticipating Sonoma-Marin Area Transit rail service to commence this spring. However, the subsequent extension of SMART to Larkspur puts in motion changes to roads, and the Bettini bus transit center is likely to snarl traffic in downtown San Rafael and potentially Highway 101.
Residents and bus passengers using the center might expect appropriate foresight and planning, but as reported by IJ columnist Dick Spotswood, San Rafael “officials are waiting for SMART’s first trips to determine on-the-ground traffic impacts and only then deal with the problem.”
The impact of SMART extending to Larkspur imposes significant changes to traffic in San Rafael:
• Second and Third streets, with 50,000 daily vehicle trips, will experience delays from trains crossing four times an hour during peak hours.
• The Bettini center, serving 9,000 daily bus riders, must be moved as SMART’s tracks to Larkspur bisect bus platforms. No place has yet been identified to park hundreds of buses entering and exiting the center. The “interim plan” is to park these buses on already congested streets for several years.
• Traffic congestion caused by buses and crossing guards could prevent cars from exiting Highway 101, lengthening commute times for 217,000 daily car drivers.
Why? To make way for a train that SMART projects, in its environmental report, will serve just 231 daily riders, a number not attained until 2035.
A new grassroots organization has formed — Save Our San Rafael — to advocate more rational planning performed in advance of permitting SMART to be extended to Larkspur. This would include a full analysis of the traffic impacts.
Key questions include where to put the relocated transit center, how much it will cost and what to do in an interim period likely to persist for many years.
Exactly how many Golden Gate and Marin Transit buses will fit on city streets, how passengers will safely make connections and how this will impact traffic have not been disclosed.
The San Rafael City Council will consider alternatives at future public meetings.
How much traffic will be created?
According to city staff, the city has no plan to analyze whether trains crossing Second, Third and Fourth streets and Fifth and Mission avenues four times an hour will inhibit cars exiting the freeway. So far, nothing official has been disclosed or made available to the public.
If cars are backed into the gridlock that already exists on Highway 101, hundreds of thousands of commuters on the regional freeway will experience even longer commutes and emit more pollutants — including greenhouse gases — into the atmosphere.
San Rafael’s public works department has claimed an environmental impact analysis is not required. While it may not be legally required, it is morally required.
The City Council and the public ought to be provided the information as to whether SMART’s congestion increasing extension actually increases or decreases emissions.
The city’s wait-and-see approach comes with serious consequences. Once the train crosses Third, under federal law, there is nothing the city can do about the additional traffic.
We propose a logical alternative: Follow the successful quiet zone process implemented by Mayor Gary Phillips. The City Council held three public hearings to consider quiet zones. They were such a success that the method used by Mayor Phillips is being followed by Novato and Sonoma County.
The City Council needs to first conduct a thorough traffic analysis, then repeat this proven approach.
The current wait-and-see approach sets the city on an irreversible disaster course. Save Our San Rafael seeks to put planning on the right track to truly relieve traffic and fight climate change.
Richard Hall is a transportation and planning activist in Marin and one of the founders of Save Our San Rafae