KC News

Upfront Streetcars desired

by Peter Seidman | Posted: Friday, November 23, 2012 11:15 am

Backers of a plan to run a trolley line from San Rafael to Fairfax would love to borrow a SMART catchphrase and say, “There’s a trolley coming to town.”

To publicize its progress, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District coined the phrase “There’s a Train Coming to Town.” The connection between the SMART rail line and the proposal to create a trolley corridor represents more than semantics. Trolley corridors running low- or no-emission vehicles could form a skeleton of feeder lines to a SMART backbone of stations.

The executive committee of the Transportation Authority of Marin last week approved a recommendation to spend One Bay Area Grant Program funds to conduct a feasibility study for a Ross Valley transit corridor, which would include consideration of a possible trolley line. The full board will discuss the transit corridor at a Nov. 29 meeting. 

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is setting guidelines to establish policies and programming of federal surface transportation funds for fiscal years 20112 to 2016. The grant program is one of the first tangible results in a new approach to funding transportation improvements. The approach aims to integrate methods to disperse federal transportation dollars using California’s Sustainable Communities Strategy. 

According to MTC, funding allocations take into account “rewarding jurisdictions that accept housing-need allocations and produce housing using transportation dollars as incentives.” The funding allocations methodology “…allows flexibility to invest in transportation categories such as Transportation for Livable Communities.” Critics of the housing-need allocation process continue to throw daggers at the plan to create transit-oriented development along transportation corridors. They object to what they say are inflated numbers of housing units the needs-assessment process envisions for Marin. But while critics continue criticizing, the state has adopted laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and control suburban sprawl. Money for the trolley feasibility study is among a number of transportation projects for which Marin will receive funds. 

The executive committee recommended approving $150,000 to go toward the feasibility study, with $100,000 of that total coming from the One Bay Area Grant Program.

 Allan Nichol is the Sausalito architect who, along with another Sausalito architect, Michael Rex, proposed creating a trolley line between Sausalito and Mill Valley. Former Marin Supervisor Charles McGlashan championed the idea. The vision extended to running shuttles in the neighborhoods that could pick up people at or near their homes. But in 2009, a feasibility study for the Sausalito to Mill Valley corridor suggested that not enough people lived along the proposed line to make trolleys financially viable.

 The trolleys would have run from the downtown plaza in Mill Valley to the ferry terminal in Sausalito. In addition to the dearth of potential riders, a potential drawback to the Southern Marin corridor plan was the prospect of running trolleys that would have used an overhead wire to draw power. That arrangement likely would have offended a significant portion of local residents if the proposal had gained traction.

 McGlashan said that if the Southern Marin line wasn’t able to clear feasibility hurdles, other transit corridors in Marin might be candidates. McGlashan’s unexpected death in 2011 was a blow to Michael Rex and the trolley idea. But the vision of creating a trolley line in Marin didn’t die.

 Enter Marin Trolleys. It’s a nonprofit transportation advocacy organization devoted to creating a trolley line in the Ross Valley transit corridor, from Fairfax to San Rafael. Along with Nichol, Peter Breen and Mary O’Mara serve on the organization’s executive committee and are the drivers behind the reinvigorated trolley-line proposal. O’Mara is the executive director of Marin Link. Breen is a former San Anselmo councilman and mayor who served on the TAM and the SMART boards.

The new proposal, says Nichol, is light years ahead of the one proposed for Southern Marin. “There’s been a revolution in the trolley world.” As envisioned in the Marin Trolleys proposal for the Ross Valley corridor, the vehicles would use no overhead wires. That’s a good thing, according to Dianne Steinhauser, executive director at TAM.  “Overhead wires are dead on arrival,” she says. The trolley vision that Nichol sketches would use vehicles such as the ones a company called TIG/m runs. According to company literature, the Chatsworth-based firm designs and manufactures “heritage-styled street railway vehicles that are technologically modern, historically authentic in appearance and electrically powered green vehicles utilizing battery technologies. They are quiet and efficient, carrying their power source on-board. They build green transportation for a greener future.”

“They are beautiful trolleys,” says Nichol. “They have lithium batteries and fuel cells. The can go up to 55 miles an hour, and they can run for 20 hours” with power to spare at the end of the day. Under a Nichol’s blue-sky scenario, the trolleys would run about every 20 minutes along the line from morning into the night. And continuing the blue-sky scenario, the trolleys could be carbon neutral with the assist of a system that uses solar power to charge the vehicles.

Reducing greenhouse gas emission is one of the Marin Trolleys’ foremost goals. But so is presenting a favorable transportation experience. That’s why historic-looking trolleys could be a boon to ridership. Marin residents never have fallen in love with bus transportation. For some residents, it even carries a stigma of low social status. But trolleys reminiscent of the heyday of the vehicles could put a smile on the face of prospective passengers and also attract their fares. Trolleys, smaller than big buses, seem more in scale than buses in the neighborhoods through which they both travel. Trolley popularity has happened in other areas, notably Portland, where a trolley system after meeting stiff opposition in start-up mode has become a passenger favorite.

The trolleys that Nichol proposes using would run on tracks embedded in the existing roadway and would travel along with other vehicles in the street. Unlike buses, the trolleys wouldn't pull over to pick up and drop off passengers. Instead they would stop in the street, much as the streetcars to in San Francisco. Cars behind the trolleys would stop and wait for passengers to embark and disembark and then continue with the trolley.

The executive committee’s recommendation is technically a “transit corridor feasibility study.” It calls for conducting an investigation under the oversight of a technical advisory team that will include a minimum of representatives from Fairfax, San Anselmo, San Rafael, the county, Marin Trolleys, SMART, Marin Transit, and TAM Commissioner and Marin Supervisor Katie Rice.

“We hope that Marin Trolleys can raise a bit of the money” needed for the study, says Steinhauser, who adds she thinks the cost could be “$100,000 and change for a decent study.” The bureaucratic chain of funding goes like this: MTC approves funding for TAM to assign. Then TAM develops programs, including the transit corridor study, and sends the list to MTC, which handles the bureaucratic administration to actually get the federal cash. “But, says Steinhauser, “MTC pretty much leaves it up to us to decide how to spend the money.”

While that’s good news for trolley advocates, the idea for vehicles running on embedded rails will be just one option under a review coordinated with Marin Transit, which already runs buses in the corridor. (Studies have shown that adding trolleys to a transportation corridor actually can boost bus ridership.) The feasibility study will look at three areas. The first will be how it may be possible to produce “bus rapid transit,” which Steinhauser says gives buses “a travel time advantage” through traffic. The second area for investigation is what a trolley line would look like with vehicles that run on rubber tires instead of embedded rails. The third area will be to look at a line that has vehicles running on embedded rails.

Steinhauser says, “It might make sense to run rubber-tire vehicles as a starting point because embedding rails in the street is a costly procedure.” And this is a pilot project. “You don’t want to experiment with a very costly venture.” But, she adds, it’s possible that private investors could contribute in a public/private partnership that would help the startup bottom line. That’s a possibility that Marin Trolleys has considered.

“We really need to dig in to what the user groups will be for this line and determine whether it’s worth the money,” says Steinhauser. “And we need to know whether we can we do it without any big traffic impacts. Those are the three big things” to consider.

Marin Trolleys says it’s important to put the costs of a trolley system in perspective. Nichol says the EPA, HUD and the Federal Transit Administration could cover 80 percent of startup costs if the trolley plan meets federal guidelines. He doesn’t however, discount, the current economic climate and its impact on fundraising. “In this day and age, it’s a big challenge. But consider that consumers in Marin spend $2 billion every year on automobile transportation. It’s the most expensive and the most polluting system.”

There’s more to the push for a trolley corridor than saving transportation expenditures. “We have a responsibility to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Nichol. “We need to deal with the serious environmental issues that face us.” The trolley line the feasibility study will consider would run from White’s Hill in Fairfax along Center Boulevard, down the Miracle Mile and proceed to downtown San Rafael and beyond to the Montecito Shopping Center. (The Miracle Mile and Center Boulevard are on the route of a former electric rail line.) The Trolleys Marin route would go through downtown Fairfax, San Anselmo and San Rafael, creating the opportunity for business and residential development along the corridor. The towns along the line as well as the county would have ultimate planning control.

“To imagine the coming together of the SMART train, the trolley coming down Fourth Street, buses across the street [at the Transit Center], workability, cafes—I think it will be a rejuvenation of all the areas that it passes through,” says Breen.

Steinhauser notes that “some doubters say this will never work anywhere in Marin.” But, she adds, “We’re looking at a pretty viable corridor.” Marin has a steadily increasing senior population that could provide a ridership base, along with students. “We have a healthy business destination in San Rafael and grocery stores in Montecito.” Would seniors and students and shoppers use the trolley line? The chances improve if the line “is a high-quality system.” The big question: How many people would use a trolley line, even a high-quality line? “Quality transit does attract riders,” says Steinhauser, but we also know that in our busy lives, cars afford more flexibility, especially when you are linking trips.”

In the Marin Trolleys vision, trips could be linked with shuttle buses, trolleys and SMART. Nichol says a line running along Sir Francisco Drake to the ferry terminal would be a natural. But that’s for later. He says he walked along Fourth Street and quickly gathered about 40 signatures from business owners who support the trolley vision.

Breen says the extra cost of embedding tracks would be a good investment. “When you put tracks in the ground there’s a sense of permanence” that attracts riders. Breen also says property values increase along a trolley route.

The need to provide parking and or shuttle service to SMART trains has been an issue since the early planning stages of that rail system. Providing train passengers with a green-trolley alternative to their cars as a SMART connector is a natural, says Nichol.

That opportunity along with a trolley that connects with the ferry are part of the Marin Trolleys grand vision, a vision that still includes a line running to Mill Valley and Sausalito. Maybe even lines in Sonoma County. “We make no little plans,” says Nichol, only half joking.

Contact the writer at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States

2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States. Widespread drought, wildfires and extreme heat affected human health and caused food prices to skyrocket. According to new research out of Columbia University, however, last year’s heat wave may be nothing compared to what’s just around the corner.




Researchers at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory predict that a megadrought, the likes of which haven’t been experienced since the 12th century, could hit planet Earth within the next eight years, and it might never leave [PDF]. The cause? According to scientists, this drought will be brought on by “anthropogenic radiative forcing”, also known as ‘stronger-than-normal greenhouse warming caused by climate pollution’.

Because the human race, especially wealthy, super-polluters like the United States, have refused to heed the warnings about continued fossil fuel use, it’s likely that impending water shortages will make the 12th century droughts look like an unusually warm summer day.

“The new model simulations indicate that southwestern North America will become progressively more arid as the century advances with important changes appearing in the immediate future,” write the study’s authors. “Despite the fact that precipitation might increase in some regions and seasons (e.g. winter in northern California) while decrease in others, rising temperatures mean that a large majority of the model simulations project that spring and annual mean runoff will decrease. Soil moisture is also projected to decrease throughout the year, especially in Texas. The mean of the multiple climate models analyzed projects that annual mean runoff in the Colorado River headwaters in 2021-2040 will be 10 percent less than in the decades at the end of the 20th Century.”

There’s a lot of scientific terminology packed in there, but here’s a simple summary: Focusing on the near future, 2021–2040, the new simulations project declines in surface-water availability across the southwest that translates into reduced soil moisture and runoff in California and Nevada, the Colorado River headwaters and Texas. This is very bad news for anyone who eats or drinks water in America…which is everyone.

As Kim Martineau writes for Columbia’s Earth Institute blog, the study predicts “a 10 percent drop in the Colorado River’s flow in the next few decades [about 5 times the amount Las Vegas uses in one year]…enough to disrupt longtime water-sharing agreements between farms and cities across the American Southwest.” In case you were wondering, 40 million people depend on the Colorado River Basin for water and the river is already over-allocated.

Feeling alarmed? I don’t blame you. The idea that one of our biggest sources of fresh water will start to run dry in the next decade is more than a little troubling, yet I’ll bet this is the first you’ve heard of it. “The prepublication press release for this paper came out on December 23 and while it did get picked up by a few sources, the only major outlet was Agence France Press,” writes Bruce Melton for Truthout. “All of the coverage referenced the 10 percent reduction in streamflow that this work’s modeling projects for the near future. This seemingly small number appears to have limited journalists’ interest in the results of the research as a whole.”

Translation: mainstream media’s interest, which really means corporate interest. And then it becomes clear why no ones making any noise about this impending disaster–it might upset the fossil fuel companies who fund everything from your daily newspaper to your local politician. While the head-in-the-sand approach may be best for corporate profits, it’s detrimental for human survival.

Our addition to oil, gas and coal (despite a plethora of alternatives) is killing this planet, and soon, it will be killing us as well. Anyone who tells you different is either ignorant of the evidence, or financially invested in convincing you to ignore it.




Ross Valley trolley deserves a close look

Marin Trolley

Marin Independent Journal Editorial
Posted:  03/03/2013 05:00:00 AM PST

A propose to use this type of car on the Ross Valley Trolley run from Fairfax to the San Rafael.

FEW WOULD BE SURPRISED if the projected cost for building and running a trolley line from Fairfax to San Rafael turns out to be pretty pricey, probably beyond what any people might say we can afford. But there are those who say we, as a community, cannot afford not to pursue this idea to have a greener mode of local transit.

They are right. The idea deserves a hard look. That's what the Transportation Authority of Marin is going to do. TAM has committed $100,000 to look into the idea, its cost, its ridership and its engineering viability. Anyone who drives on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard during periods of heavy traffic would likely agree that another means for getting across the county is probably a good idea. The road is jammed and there is little room to improve that situation.

Recent proposals to widen Drake have received chilly political receptions. Architect Alan Nichol, former San Anselmo Councilman Peter Breen and Mary O'Mara, executive director of MarinLink, have been pushing the Ross Valley trolley. They say it is a viable idea that deserves to be studied. They have won support from politicians and merchants along the five-mile stretch. The trolley, they say, can be just what's needed to help feed riders to the commuter train being built by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. They have a good point. Getting riders to the train or getting to and from the train to jobs remains a challenge for SMART. A trolley, similar to the train that once traveled much of that stretch, could be the answer. It would be a way to get students to White Hill School and home. It would be a way to get workers to jobs in San Rafael.

Proponents don't rule out extending the trolley to San Rafael's Canal area, one of Marin's most public-transit-dependent communities.

Nichol says a trolley system may be the most environmentally sound solution, providing public transit powered by electricity, not gasoline. "The trolley is a real interesting way to get people out of their cars," he said, noting the trolleys could be powered by lithium batteries and fuel cells rather than overhead power lines.

Fairfax and San Anselmo political leaders are so intrigued by the concept they are committing their share of the county's transportation funds to study it. We hope the study covers possible financing options, including a public-private partnership to cover the cost of building and operating the system.

The idea is going nowhere without hard numbers. You've got to start somewhere. Having real numbers on cost, operation, ridership and financing will be important in testing community support for the idea.

We won't be surprised if the sums generated in the study lay out a steep uphill financial challenge. But, at that point, we will have facts and figures to help us decide whether a Ross Valley trolley is a viable, or even realistic, option.