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.

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