Upfront: Critical connection

Planned multiuse SMART project path lacks important sections

by Peter Seidman

Alternative transportation advocates in Marin continue to voice concern that a planned multiuse path through San Rafael will lack critical sections. One of them would be especially useful to low-income residents in the Canal area.

The multiuse path, part of the SMART commuter rail project, will benefit all users of alternative transportation. But for many Canal residents, walking and biking are more than preferred methods of alternative transportation—they’re the only options.

When voters in Marin and Sonoma counties passed Measure Q in 2008, they approved what was the last in a line of several ballot proposals to raise the sales tax in the two counties to fund rail transportation along the rail corridor that runs between the two counties. In 2006, Measure R failed to garner the combined required two-thirds majority needed for passage in the two counties. Measure R garnered a combined 65.3 percent of the vote, 1.3 percent shy of the necessary total. In 2008, Measure Q garnered 69.1 percent of the vote, pushing it over the top.

One of the key elements that led to the success of Measure R, say bike advocates, was the support it received from the bike communities in both counties. The Marin County Bicycle Coalition disseminated information about the proposed multiuse path that would run along the SMART train route. The dream scenario envisioned a route separated from street traffic that would run the full length of the proposed 70-mile train route from Larkspur to Cloverdale.

Then the financial cataclysm hit, and SMART found itself scrambling for funds to deliver on the premise of a train route and a parallel multiuse path. The answer at SMART was to deliver the train route in segments. In Marin, that meant a terminus in San Rafael instead of Larkspur in the first phase of construction. Finding the finances to build the multiuse path and the train route challenged SMART and led to inevitable tension between those who said that the train comes first and bike advocates who rightly pointed out that voters had approved a project that included a parallel multiuse path. It was more than an add-on, they said. It was an intrinsic part of the project.

In December of 2014, alternative transportation advocates raised what they said was a legitimate alarm that SMART was planning to excise key parts of the multiuse path through San Rafael. The SMART 2014 strategic plan, approved in December, failed to include three multiuse path segments: North San Pedro Road to the top of Puerto Suello Hill, Mission Avenue to Second Street and Second Street to Andersen Drive. That excision, bike advocates charged, violated the intent of Measure Q, which promised voters a continuous path.

The excision means that bike riders would be forced to continue using congested surface streets to traverse downtown San Rafael to reach the Cal Park Hill Tunnel, which leads to Larkspur Landing and points south. Opening the tunnel, which can accommodate the train route and the multiuse path, was a major victory for train and bike advocates.

Since the 1970s, bike advocates have worked to create a path that would run from Novato to the Golden Gate Bridge. The multiuse path included in Measure Q represented an important step in making the dream a reality. The realization that SMART failed to include the San Rafael segments in its 2014 strategic plan was a blow. The segments were included in an earlier strategic plan.

“Of utmost concern right now is the section between Second Street and Andersen Drive,” says Alisha Oloughlin, Marin County Bicycle Coalition planning director. The excision from the SMART strategic plan is less concerning than an excision from an environmental assessment, she says. “Strategic plans are dynamic, but environmental assessments are pretty concrete.” Leaving the three segments out of the multiuse route through San Rafael, she reiterates, would negate the concept of running a protected path through downtown San Rafael.

Completing a path protected from traffic is not an inconsequential goal. The most identified reason bike riders choose not to mount their two-wheel transportation is the perception of an unsafe route. And the necessity of riding in traffic ranks as the most significant threat to safe riding. In communities that create protected bike lanes, ridership increases dramatically. In June 2014, Portland State University corroborated the assumption in a study it released that looked at bike ridership in five cities.

When San Francisco created a protected bike route on Fell Street, bike ridership increased by 46 percent. Painted “bike route” lanes contributed to the increase, along with flexible posts that delineated the route and provided perceived separation. In Portland, a similar protected bike route helped increase ridership on one of the city’s streets by 68 percent. And Washington D.C. saw a 65 percent increase on a similarly protected route.

Marin residents already have demonstrated that they are amenable to riding bikes as a means of utilitarian transportation, especially when improved bike routes become available.

In 2014, Marin, one of four communities across the country in the federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, posted an increase in bike use of 66 percent since 2007. The U.S. Department of Transportation included the increase in a final report about the program, which rested on the assumption that improving bike infrastructure can boost ridership.

Leaving multiuse path segments, especially Second Street to Andersen out of its environmental review, Oloughlin says, “will forever preclude a path” on the segment because creating a path there after the train infrastructure is installed is virtually impossible. She also said that one section in San Rafael “is a pinch point between Irwin Street and Rice Drive.” (That’s near Best Buy.) “It is admittedly a challenge to fit train tracks and a path there, next to a tidally influenced creek. But there are creative design solutions that would accommodate the tracks and the path. SMART has not explored those.”

That’s not exactly accurate, according to Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager. “There is an area between Second and Andersen where we have 50 feet, and we need 48 feet for the train.” SMART must abide by a dizzying number of regulatory rules regarding train safety and environmental regulations, both on the federal level. “We came up with the idea of widening the area by filling the existing channel,” Mansourian says. Three regulatory agencies refused to approve the plan.

SMART then proposed that the bike community pursue the multiuse path project with the city of San Rafael as a local transportation project rather than a federal project connected with the train route. “They wouldn’t have to face the same regulatory rules and federal process that we face,” Mansourian says.

San Rafael has agreed to contribute $40,000 to an independent study to determine if the multiuse path along the train route could be feasible and satisfy local environmental rules. The city partnered with the county and with the Transportation Authority of Marin to develop possible alternatives. Mansourian says that SMART is a willing partner.

Although the multiuse path segments in San Rafael are not the only ones that present difficulties in completing what’s been called a North-South Greenway along the train route, the San Rafael segments represent a critical portion of the central San Rafael connection to the Cal Park tunnel and Larkspur Landing. Negotiating through San Rafael downtown traffic is no easy task.

The route isn’t a choice for many Canal residents. It’s a necessity. In spite of recent state law that allows undocumented residents to get licenses, “many people [in the Canal] still don’t have licenses for a number of reasons,” says Tom Wilson, executive director of the Canal Alliance. That’s a situation replicated across the state, he adds. “A lot of people [in the Canal] rely on bicycles for transportation.” For that reason, Wilson says, forcing riders onto unprotected surface streets along the multiuse path route “would disproportionally affect people who live in the Canal, people who work around the county. A lot of the jobs are in the southern part of the county.” The multiuse path “is critical for people here.”

Oloughlin says one option not yet explored fully is whether the path could be cantilevered above the environmentally sensitive area. That might be one of the options explored in the study of alternatives that city officials, county officials, SMART and transportation advocates are waiting to see.

Mansourian reiterates that SMART remains a willing partner in the process to produce the best multiuse path possible—given funding and regulatory constraints.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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