The Richmond Bridge Bike Path – A Bridge too Far?

The Richmond Bridge Bike Path – A Bridge too Far?

While acknowledging that bicycle infrastructure is behind the curve and merits increased expenditure, we are seeing bike path projects where expenditures have been getting out of hand. Transportation funding is dwindling, the SMART train already diverted $11.4m of funding earmarked to solve congestion at the 101 Greenbrae interchange.

Thanks to highly effective bicycle lobbyists and “transit oriented development” Marin’s commuters face another diversion of transportation funding.  The Cal Park tunnel  project works out at a cost of $675,000 to remove one car from our roads. That’s quite an extraordinary expense.  And we now look set to follow this boondoggle with another bike path costing even more over the Richmond San Rafael Bridge.

The Cal Park Tunnel – the $27m Bikers Boondoggle

SF Streetsblog, a pro-cycling and TOD site, reports:

After 17 years of planning, the Cal Park tunnel will open to Marin County cyclists today, providing a shorter, safer route between San Rafael and the Larkspur Ferry for an estimated 800,000 riders a year.

The 1.1-mile project includes class 1 bike lanes to connect the 1,106-foot bore with Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on the south and Anderson Road in San Rafael

So how much did the project cost? The initial estimate was $3m but by completion the cost had ballooned to $27m.

Claim: 800,000 Annual Riders. Reality: 40 an Hour at Peak

It’s claimed that tunnel will be used by 800,000 riders a year –  a seemingly enormous number. This translates to 2,191 riders today if the claim is to be believed. Consider for perspective that the population of Marin is only 258,365 according to the latest US Census figures.

This 800,000 figure is conveniently manipulated – inflating ridership into an annual figure. Google does not reveal any source or basis from which this figure were derived as a future projection. If we were to use the same basis of calculation to assess 101 traffic today (not the future) at N San Pedro Road we could arrive at this comparson:

Cal Park Bike Users:        800,000
(projected annual future, date unspecified)
101 Users :  135,050,000
(2013 actual)

Even using this highly inflated 800,000 pie in the sky number the annual bike count in the future is 0.6% of 101 use.

Today, nearly four years after the tunnel’s completion the reality is far from the story we’ve been sold of 800,000 annual or 2,191 daily users. Walk Bike Marin publishes bike counts for 18 locations with the total ridership at peak hour for weekdays an aggregate of 963 last year. This peaked 2 years prior in 2011 at 1,295 cyclists per hour across the 18 locations. Cal Park tunnel was one of those locations.

Cal Park Tunnel Bike Counts

Click for larger image

The actual bike counts for Cal Park tunnel itself are dismal – attaining an initial 60 riders average per hour during weekday peaks in 2011 but since dropping to just 40 in 2013 (see chart, left).

If the 800,000 riders per year claim is to believed we should be seeing 2,191 riders per day – most during those peak hours. Not a mere 40.

Then we need to translate the benefit –  it might be argued that the tunnel removed 40 riders from Marin’s roads during peak rush hour. Of course this is  optimistic – it’s likely that some of those 40 were already commuting by bike, the tunnel improved their commute.

Here’s the math using the optimistic assumptions:

Expenditure: $27 million
Cars Removed: 40 at best (some cyclists may have cycled prior to the tunnel’s construction)
Cost per Car Removed: $675,000

Compare this to the Novato Narrows project to add HOV lanes to 101. A recent 1.3 mile section of the project cost just $9m and will increase capacity by 1,200 cars or 1,356 people at peak – equivalent to add a capacity of 1 person for $6,637. That capacity will get used. The Novato Narrows increases transportation capacity for less than a hundredth of the cost of the Cal Park tunnel bike path.

Imagine – how many people would take transit or bike or work from home if we paid them anything even close to $675,000. This represents an almighty benefit from the taxpayer to a very small  group. Name another group that receives anything like that amount. Imagine if we had spent that same $27m on genuine traffic choke points in Marin – how much could we have increased mobility and road capacity?

The Richmond Bridge Bike Path – the Next Boondoggle

RichmondBridgeBikesOne would have thought we would have learned from the Cal Park Tunnel boondoggle. But no – the next boondoggle is lining itself up – the Richmond Bridge bike path.

Here are the actual statistics on Richmond Bridge traffic counts vs. likely bike usage. On page 108 of  Caltrans “2013 Traffic Volumes on California State Highways” the Richmond Parkway traffic count for peak is 13,000 vehicles per hour. This bridge has acute traffic issues with substantial daily backups.

The US Department of Transportation’s 2009 Travel Trends Survey  tells us that average vehicle occupancy for trips to and from work is 1.13. This means 14,690 vehicle users who are directly delayed or inconvenienced; this traffic routinely backs up onto highway 101 further delaying an additional 14,000+ vehicles per hour at Lucky Drive or 15,280 people. That’s 131m users annually if we apply the bike lobbies counting method (but this is an actual, not an unsubstantiated forecast). This lost time of those 131m road users translates into real impact, in terms of both time wasted and economic waste. For instance in the time spent in traffic:

  • a plumber or electrician could have fitted in another call (e.g. a plumber, electrician…)
  • someone who would have taken a shopping trip would be dissuaded from doing so due to known traffic delays
  • a worker who could otherwise have commuted to Marin would discount considering a job in our county due to the severe traffic delays
  • a company considering locating in Marin might be turned away by our transportation issues, causing an economic opportunity loss
Walk Bike Marin's Bike Path Counts - click for larger image

Walk Bike Marin’s Bike Path Counts – click for larger image

By comparison Walk Bike Marin’s bike count figures show 963 bikes were counted at 18 different Marin locations during peak hours. That works out at 53.5 cyclists per location. Therefore we might reasonable assume bridge usage would look like this during a peak hour:

Vehicle users: 14,690
Bike users: 53.5
Bike users as a percentage of vehicle users: 0.37%
(It’s a near meaningless figure, almost a rounding error).

The cost of adding an extra lane to the Richmond San Rafeal Bridge is estimated to be $70m (Source: MarinIJ, Sept 22nd 2014). But the majority of the expense and reasons for delay is that complex planning is needed to build the entrance to the bike path that is planned along the upper deck of the bridge. The author would suggest that at least half of the $70m is to plan the bike path. This is the Cal Park tunnel all over again – $35m+ to help a small number of cyclists.

The real impact is that tens of thousands of vehicle users on the Richmond Bridge and on 101 (caused by backups) are being delayed all for the benefit of a tiny handful of  cyclists. This just isn’t sustainable – either economically or in terms of emissions.

Benefits of a Bike Path Network

Richmond Bridge current car users vs. likely cyclists - click for larger image

Richmond Bridge current car users vs. likely cyclists – click for larger image

It’s important to point out that Marin does not have a complete bike path network. Creation of such a network could double or triple bike usage. But even when tripled the numbers remain in the weeds compared to car use.

Only the most hardened riders would cross a long, cold, windy bridge such as the Richmond San Rafael.

Instead of channeling money into “hero projects” we should be seeking to improve the most popular bike paths where there is a realistic return on investment. How many miles of regular bike paths could have been built using the millions spent on the Cal Park Tunnel or now set to be spent on the Richmond San Rafael Bridge bike path?

Ultimately this misallocation to “hero project” bike paths is a disservice to bikers. How many accidents could have been avoided? How many more might have cycled to school and removed cars from our roads?

The Moral – Let’s Restore Accountability

Federal Gas Tax Revenue is Falling

Federal Gas Tax Revenue is Falling. Source Pew analysis of Federal Highway Administration Data. Click to see larger image.

Transportation funding is being squeezed:

  • Gas taxes are dropping as cars are becoming increasingly fuel efficient, with more hybrids and EVs on our roads – especially in Marin
  • Funds generated by cars through gas taxes and bridge tolls are being diverted to pet projects such as the SMART train and these hero bike projects.

We simply cannot afford to be ineffective with our tax dollars. This is affecting thousands of people every day through delays, lost income, lost economic benefits and time spent in traffic we’ll never get back.

Let’s demand sanity and ensure that adding an additional Eastbound lane to the Richmond San Rafael Bridge is not delayed any further.

  • What do you think – I’m interested in understanding how many miles of bike paths $27m would have purchased?

    Will cycling triple in Marin? How much should we be devoting to it. I’m sympathetic to hear good arguments.

    • murphstahoe

      That path is a pretty critical link. Without it, a lot of the other paths are pretty meaningless. I use miles and miles of those other paths riding from the Ferry to Petaluma, but without that first chunk, the whole thing falls apart. It’s really crappy getting to San Rafael from the Ferry without the new tunnel.

      it is as if we said “we can widen that 1.3 miles in Novato that only costs 9M, but we can’t widen the bridge in Petaluma because that is $130M for only .17 miles”. But if we don’t widen the ENTIRE section from Petaluma to Novato, we might as well not do any of it – unless you think there is a need for a wider freeway from the landfill to Novato to deal with the surge of trips to the dump.

      Just like we look at the 101 project as 1.2 Billion from Windsor to Novato, the Cal Park tunnel should be looked at in context in that without it the sections on Anderson that were cheap to build would be underutilized.

      • Kevin Moore

        i see the CalPark tunnel as left overs from SMART updating the tunnel for the train. It was a double track tunnel from the beginning.

        It looks like they were grading a path on the freeway side, much like the Horse Hill bike path. Maybe it is just for construction access.

        I am not so hot on the SFD bridge. There is a wider bridge a couple hundred yards to the east. It’s better for commuters using the ferry as it goes right to the terminal. If the SFD bridge went across the creek, like the old train bridge, then continued to the bike path to the Village, then it would be more logical to build. Maybe when they figure out the 101/SFD update, a better bike route can be created. I wouldn’t want children riding that sidewalk on the 101 offramp.

        • murphstahoe

          I’m unfamiliar with what bridge you are talking about – is this one already constructed that was not useful, or one that is planned? Perhaps to provide less crazy access to the tunnel? Getting to the tunnel is bizarre… walkways and parking lots and etc…

          • Kevin Moore

            There is an existing bridge from Larkspur Landing (Country whatever) to the ferry terminal. The new bridge from the SMART (someday) station to across SFD is being built now for $10 million. To help justify it, they are claiming it will be useful for people going from SMART to the ferry. The existing bridge is more direct.

            The new bridge should have a second component going over the river, eliminating the use of the sidewalk on the freeway offramp. The alternate plan is to build a walkway on the other side of the guard rail for bike / ped traffic.

  • Kevin Moore

    I am in favor of building out the bike paths. However, I am not in favor high expenditures for low return. The Richmond Bridge would be on top of the “least band for the buck”. Lots of money for a few riders.

    Let’s break down bike paths.

    Some bike paths in San Francisco and Oakland look like the cities were given endless supplies of green paint for bike lanes. In contrast, some bike routes in San Rafael are poorly marked.
    The bike route from San Ansemo to downtown San Rafael, well it sucks as bad as some pothole strewn roads in Larkspur. At some intersections, it is unclear which way to turn. Some green paint going around the corner would help. Or more arrows. At one point bicycle riders are foced onto second street, which is three lanes of one way traffic. Some bollards (flexible rubber cones) might help protect bicycle riders or keep cars a little more distant. The other option is riding on the sidewalk, which can lead to bicycle pedestrian conflict. I would be OK with a “Bikes must walk past pedestrians” sign for the sidewalk.

    • Kevin – excellent perspective. I too am in favor of building more bike paths. But things have got out of hand and accountability needs to be restored.

      Again I keep coming back to a “climate change” that we need to occur here in Marin. Special interests have formed a cosy relationship with elected officials – especially the supervisors – that is resulting in absurd and irresponsible expenditures.

      I was glad to see in today’s IJ that Supervisor Kinsey is supportive of not delaying the Richmond Bridge lane additions for the sake of bike path improvements used by a tiny number of people.

    • murphstahoe

      If SMART wants to double track, it won’t be the cyclists that are causing the war. It’s not as if the bike path/route is just going along the tracks the whole way, for example along the Narrows by Olompali there is a new bike path on the opposite side of the US-101 from the tracks.

      The problem is that there are many spots along the route that would require SMART to eminent domain some very valuable real estate. Not sure how much you get up to Sonoma, but unlike in Marin where there are remote sections of track, in Sonoma there are places where the rail is basically next to an office building with very minimal setback. There are spots where SMART would have to build new bridges for second tracks. I just don’t think it’s possible.

      • Kevin Moore

        Even though phase 1 isn’t completed, some people are calling for a double track system. or swap it out for a BART like system. The reality there isn’t the funding for it, much less phase 2.

        I used Google Earth to view the existing rails. A lot of the original line is double track north of Gnoss Field to Petaluma. South of Gnoss, there would be huge issues. Expensive land to buy, filling in wetlands would be a court battle, and the Puerto Suello tunnel is single track. In fact, all throught San Rafael to Larkspur there is no room to expand.

        • murphstahoe

          Two tracks would be substantially more useful but I just don’t see it. There is nothing special about a “BART like system”. And frankly that’s a bad idea – as a “conservative” (LOL) I would not want to build out the tracks in a manner which would completely eliminate the usefulness of the rails for freight. If the train turns out to be a 6 sigma sucess for passenger and we have no ability to time slice freight onto the rails, it will be such a huge win that we won’t care.

          If we get so much demand that we need 2 tracks, we can lay the 2nd track right down the center lanes of US-101. Well, we can’t because there are gradients and curves and bridges and etc…

          • Kevin Moore

            Some of the posters on MarinIJ are like kids at Toys R Us. I want and I want and I want.

            BART in Marin died with San Mateo pulling out.
            Why BART is better and not in same league as SMART
            NOT at grade, except when fenced off. No PED or car crossings.
            Two track.
            No warning horn.

          • murphstahoe

            There is nothing unique to BART with respect to grade separations or double tracking. If you go through that process it’s still better to use standard equipment

          • Kevin Moore

            Nothing unique about BART. Just better than SMART due to the items I listed. As the SMART train rolls through San Rafael, it will create worse traffic jams. Not to mention the train being stopped waiting for cars to clear the track.

          • Kevin Moore

            Do some Googling. Frieght operators are angry how the SMART tracks were installed. Some spurs were eliminated. (the old, thanks. For the support back stab.). People who are train enthusiasts have some interesting perspective on SMART, freight trains, what is next. Like the option for over 100 more cars.

            I did see the swing bridge over the Petaluma river in action. Might have a video of it.

  • murphstahoe

    Richard – can we also compare the costs for widening the bridge in Petaluma?

    $130 MILLION dollars – for .17 miles.

    • Kevin Moore

      Widening the bridge over the Petaluma river requires building a bridge structure. Bridges are not cheap. Too few details, but the addition of a bike lane should take little engineering and just movable barricades. Some structural analysis of the added weight.

      Use Google Earth to look at the approach at each end. I don’t see an easy bike route and that could be expensive.

      I grew up in the area. Novato to Santa Rosa has been 4 lanes as long as back in the 60s when it changed from a highway going through small cities to a freeway bypassing a few towns. The “add another lane and another lane” mantra we hear doesn’t hold water for 101 from Notavot to Santa Rosa. Meanwhile Sonomas population has tripled.

      Remember the drive in movie north of Novato?

      • murphstahoe

        Not cheap ever – but they are building a new one interleaving with an operating one – quite a project but not cheap