.Upfront: Congestion cure?

Marin cities propose answers to traffic problems

by Joseph Mayton

Editor’s note: This story is under review following reports of challenges to the veracity of Joseph Mayton’s reporting for other publications.

Larkspur officials are hopeful that new proposals to ease traffic and congestion on a key thoroughfare that connects Highway 101 to Interstate 580 will help achieve an overall new perspective on long-term transportation and land use in Marin County. The city has drafted two proposals aimed at improving traffic and delivering access to motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

According to city officials, the two projects will be submitted by the Transportation Authority of Marin to regional bodies for approval. It comes as congestion along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is currently overburdened—serving 55,000 vehicles per day. Designed in the 1960s, the boulevard was meant to handle approximately 20,000 vehicles daily. But with the Bay Area’s population increases over the past half-century, new efforts are needed.

Larkspur councilman Dan Hillmer, the city’s representative on the Transportation Authority of Marin, says that if the projects are not included in the budget, they will not get funded. “I think our best efforts would be to try to coordinate those projects we anticipate can be approved and achieved in a timely fashion,” Hillmer says.

It’s all part of Plan Bay Area 2040, a strategic update to Plan Bay Area 2013, and according to the official website, “it builds on earlier work to develop an efficient transportation network, provide more housing choices and grow in a financially and environmentally responsible way.”

The goal with Plan Bay Area is to help create a roadmap to assist Bay Area cities and counties in preserving the character of our diverse communities while adapting to the challenges of future population growth. In Marin, officials are hopeful that helping to reduce congestion and develop infrastructure projects will continue to help spur growth and entice companies to head to the county, which has recently seen large companies like Kaiser Permanente gobble up office space.

The Larkspur proposals aim to have wide-reaching effects. The first proposal would target the roadway specifically, and aims to upgrade the center median, improve traffic signals and extend turn lanes in order to give motorists better ease on and off the main boulevard and highways. Officials confirm that the five-year project would begin in 2016 and will cost more than $40 million, in additional to a $3.7 million maintenance cost.

The second proposal would ease travel from the already proposed SMART station to the Larkspur Ferry, with better signage and better marked pick-up and drop-off zones for shuttles and passenger loading zones. This project is cheaper, costing around $4 million total, including maintenance costs.

“These are things we must do in order to make traffic flow better through the Sir Francis Drake-Larkspur Landing intersection,” Mayor Larry Chu says. “These projects are a good thing.”

Since the proposals were first announced at the end of September, other ideas have cropped up, including potential Highway 101 toll lanes in Marin, which supporters say would help speed traffic through the county. Being dubbed “express lanes,” the concept would allow individual drivers to pay to use carpool lanes in an effort to reduce congestion.

“We want to focus on the heavier-used corridors first,” says John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transportation planning agency. Goodwin says that while Marin was initially left out of another toll lane plan, the commission is looking at revisiting the county after officials appeared receptive to the concept.

Marin residents also appear to support the concept, as a whole. A 2010 survey reported that 17 percent of respondents “strongly supported” the toll lane idea, while another 24 percent “somewhat supported” the express lane. Only 27 percent were “strongly opposed.”

The problem facing Marin, as with many other Bay Area locations, is that space is limited. According to Dianne Steinhauser, the executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin, “there is no space” for using carpool lanes. It would require new construction and renovation of existing roads.

“To create space, the carpool requirement would have to go from two to three persons in a car,” Steinhauser says. “That could wreak havoc with Marin traffic that is already teetering on the point of disaster.”

But for residents, doing nothing is worse than attempting to create new means of commuting to and from Marin County cities. Thomas Wilson, 39, a Marin City resident of 12 years, says that without changes to the current status quo, “it will be harder and harder to get around, especially during rush hours.”

He argues that city officials need to come together and find solutions in order to increase the ease of travel in the county. “It is taking more and more time to go a lot of places and to get to the highway is a pain,” Wilson says. “I sincerely hope this will be more success than failure. We need something to get done.”

The wrangling over transportation in Marin is unlikely to subside in the near future, especially after Marin Assemblyman Marc Levine introduced a bill in late September aimed at eliminating the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) altogether. He argued that the commission is not accountable to the public and has been ineffective.

The San Rafael Democrat would also do away with the Bay Area Toll Authority as well as the commission, which oversees the region’s seven state-run bridges. He would replace it with a new commission directly responsible to the public.

“Our traffic is some of the worst in the nation,” Levine says in a statement. “We need a transportation commission that will put their energies to eliminating traffic gridlock. The new Bay Area Transportation Commission will be responsive and accountable to our communities’ needs rather than operate as an appointed board.”

The commission is expected to take up the proposal in October. It may be harder to dismantle the commission than Levine believes, considering the commission’s role in Plan Bay Area 2040, even as Levine and other critics assert the MTC is attempting to take more power than it deserves.

Randy Rentschler, MTC’s director of legislation and public affairs, says that the commission is taking the proposal seriously and hopes to find a compromise over the matter.

“We are just doing a simple, functional consolidation of regional planning, that’s all we are doing,” Rentschler is quoted as saying. “It’s a small step toward functional efficiency. It’s more efficient for the public. There needs to be a region vision.”

And in many ways, the Larkspur proposals and the revamping of Plan Bay Area should help Marin make headway with the congestion problems that have plagued the county for years.

Pacific Sun
The Pacific Sun publishes every Wednesday, delivering 21,000 copies to 520 locations throughout Marin County.


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