With the city of San Rafael facing potential disruption to downtown traffic congestion by the extension of the SMART train to Larkspur it seemed worthwhile to conduct a survey to understand people’s attitudes to the train and the relative costs and benefits of the exercise.
The initial operating segment of SMART is from Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael. The extension to Larkspur is likely to add significant traffic congestion as crossings will close off 2nd and 3rd streets four times an hour during the peak rush hour. Adding Train Crossings to an Area Already Experiencing Severe Traffic Congestion In 2014, SMART staff, in the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) using the Metropolitan Transportation Commission ridership model, projected that the extension to Larkspur would generate an additional 131 riders/day for the year 2035. In the same EIS, AECOM did traffic modeling for downtown San Rafael for 2040 and concluded that traffic would be so bad, the train crossing 2nd/3rd on its way to Larkspur would not make a material difference. They used the Level of Service grade rating which runs from A to F with D normally being the margin of acceptable. The 2nd and 3rd Street grade were both F – it doesn’t get any worse. Downtown San Rafael traffic congestion is already off the chart. Moving a Transit Center Used Daily by 4,500 People The extension of SMART to Larkspur means that left in place San Rafael Transit Center users would disembark into the path of trains – which clearly is not going to work. Today, not in 2035, the transit center serves 9,000 daily drips – or roughly 4,500 daily riders. This in comparison to SMART projecting that Larkspur extension will generate just 131 riders – and that’s all the way out in the year 2035. Moving the Transit Center is likely to cost at least $20 million, and it’s relocation will require major infrastructure work that will serve to further increase traffic congestion in downtown San Rafael. The Survey To capture an understanding of attitude towards current traffic conditions and the SMART train I conducted a 10 question survey. This was circulated on Nextdoor.com, Facebook, linked to from Marin IJ comments and circulated by San Rafael resident Janet Shirley to an email distribution list. Survey Limitations The author acknowledges some limitations of the survey:
- San Rafael has approximately 46,000 adult residents, so given 226 respondents were from San Rafael there is a 95% confidence level and a +/- 6.5% margin of error
- A survey circulated by a neutral body such a the City of San Rafael may reduce (or increase) biases. For instance the city may notify people through an existing email distribution list which may disproportionately represent neighborhood and special interests activists rather than accurately representing the general population
Where Do Survey Respondents Live? 78% of respondents lived in San Rafael – 227 of the 291 respondents reporting living in this city.
Did Respondents Vote for SMART? Of respondents who did vote on SMART’s Measure Q they reported voting as follows:
- Yes 37%
- No 63%
Marin as a whole had a higher Yes percentage. This lower yes percentage may reflect:
- The sample which may skew towards those opposed to SMART
- San Rafael residents living near the end of the line did not stand to significantly benefit from the train, those further north in Novato, Petaluma and other cities in Sonoma had potentially greater benefits using the train to get to employment centers to the south.
Do You Believe SMART is a Worthwhile Project? The majority, 68%, stated that they do not feel SMART is a worthwhile project, with 17% withholding judgement (don’t know) and just 16% remaining supportive of the project.
Attitude to Current Levels of Traffic in Downtown San Rafael 24 users said that traffic congestion in downtown San Rafael was acceptable compared to 213 respondents who stated that congestion was “unacceptable”. 63% stated that fixing traffic congestion is a higher priority than SMART. 8% felt that SMART would help alleviate traffic congestion.
How Often Would Respondents Use SMART? Of the 291 respondents only 4 respondents (1%) said they would take SMART every weekday once it runs to Larkspur. 69% expect never to use SMART and 29% said they might use SMART occasionally or twice a week.
Will SMART Relieve Traffic Congestion? Asked “Do you agree with this statement: “SMART will relieve traffic congestion”?” 74% of respondents disagreed. It’s interesting to reconcile this response with the first words of Measure Q that helped the measure pass – that the train is “To relieve traffic congestion”. So most respondents do not believe SMART will deliver on it’s primary raison d’etre.
Will SMART Help Fight Climate Change? A second rationale for the train in Measure Q is that it would help fight climate change. Respondents were asked “Do you agree with this statement: “SMART will help fight climate change?” 21% of respondents agreed, while 63% of respondents disagreed that SMART would help fight climate change.
Is SMART a Well Managed Project? SMART was scheduled to launch in 2014, but has suffered repeated delays and the initial line length was reduced. The reason given for shortening the line length was the economic recession, but just as much as this reduced sales tax revenues it also reduced building costs during the construction stage – really this was a wash. Measure Q proponents had seen survey feedback indicating that they would be unlikely to pass the necessary 1/2c sales tax, so they took a “foot in the door” policy and asked for 1/4c knowing this was insufficient. Given these repeated delays and escalating costs maybe it be no surprise that 68% feel that SMART is not well managed. This message should really be taken stock by the current SMART board who are appointed, not elected. Board members may be selected for being supportive of the project rather than performing good oversight. If they rock the boat they may risk losing their seat on the board. Perhaps a better system would be for municipalities to vote in SMART board members.
Should San Rafael Conduct Traffic Analysis & Assess Train Ridership Before Allowing SMART to Extend to Larkspur? This question was really the primary reason to conduct the survey – to gain understanding of attitudes and preferences between:
- maintaining the urgency around extending SMART to Larkspur
- addressing what some may perceive as acute traffic congestion in downtown San Rafael
75% of respondents said that this analysis and assessment is necessary, even if it delays SMART going to Larkspur. 18% said that this analysis and assessment should be done but only if it did not delay SMART. This should be useful insight for members of the San Rafael city council who right now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They should be seeking the shelter of understanding what city residents want.
How Do You Commute Most Weekdays? Finally respondents were asked “How do you commute to work most weekdays?” Driving alone came first with 40%, 22% worked from home, 3% carpooled, only 3% took the bus, 2% walked and 0.3% cycled. Conclusion Sentiments of San Rafael residents are generally negative on SMART. They are apprehensive if not opposed to the train making traffic congestion any worse than it is already in downtown San Rafael. The author strongly encourages the San Rafael City Council, the Transportation Authority of Marin and Golden Gate Transit to conduct their own surveys – ensuring they capture a representative set of respondents and do not use leading questions. It would appear imprudent for the San Rafael city council to allow SMART to proceed to Larkspur before conducting proper traffic analysis and assessing train ridership.