Commuter Trains


Railroad Ties

Michael Amsler

The Big Gamble: Train enthusiast Lionel Gambill paints a compelling picture of the future of North Bay rail.

Can commuter train service save Sonoma County from urban sprawl? Do newly adopted urban growth boundaries hold the key to success for light rail?

By Bruce Robinson

STANDING in a vacant lot strewn with broken glass and rusting industrial debris, Lionel Gambill sees nothing but possibilities. To our left stands an aged red-brick warehouse, its doors and windows thick with plywood, but beyond the weeds and rubble to our right lies the pivot point for his optimism, the newly restored Santa Rosa railroad depot.

And in between are the railroad tracks themselves, the steel ribbons that not only run from Marin County north to Eureka, but hold the promise of connecting the 19th century to the 21st in terms of North Bay public transit. The resumption of limited tourist train service between Healdsburg and Willits this summer is a harbinger of the resurrection of the publicly owned railroad, Gambill believes, and expanded excursion services will open a floodgate of other benefits.

“I see tourism as paving the way to every other kind of passenger train,” the two-time Democratic congressional candidate and rail enthusiast says with thoughtful enthusiasm, “not just commute, but city to city.”

Outlining a logical progression–increased freight, more tourism, then limited commuter services that grow as local demand increases–Gambill paints a compelling picture of a future that combines less congested highways, urban renewal, a thriving tourism industry, and even reduced pressures for continued developmental sprawl. And it all rests on “the health and prosperity of the railroad and what it can do for the entire corridor and its environment.”

How do we get from here to there? “We need vision,” Gambill replies. “And it has to be big vision, not just paltry little ideas, bit by bit.

“Political will is the key.”

That is a big unknown. Local elected officials in Sonoma and Marin are setting the stage for the residents of both counties to vote on a half-cent increase in the sales tax to fund a package of transit improvements that is expected to include widening major portions of Highway 101 and the creation of a commuter rail line between the two counties. But stung by the failure of a previous attempt in 1990, they are cautiously testing the electoral winds to ensure that the package–and its price tag–are palatable to the voters.

Early indications are mixed. A poll of North Bay voters in mid-June found more than 70 percent support the transit tax concept in both counties. Significantly, that level of support drops sharply, to below 50 percent, if rail is not part of the package.

But much of that enthusiasm for rail appears to be philosophical, as only 14 percent say they expect to ride the rails regularly. Another 50 percent see themselves as occasional users, while 30 percent say they will never ride the train.

A $400,000 feasibility study released in early June found that a commuter rail service between Cloverdale and Larkspur Landing in southern Marin could be up and running in less than 20 years. The study is the first step toward a new bi-county sales tax initiative, which may seek $655 million for a combination of improvements on Highway 101–including additional lanes between Windsor and Petaluma–and the construction of the new light rail line in the old Northwest Pacific Railroad right-of-way paralleling the freeway.

Getting to that point will require unprecedented cooperation between Sonoma and Marin counties, as well as local business interests and environmental groups, before the final hurdle of a sales tax initiative can be attempted. And some popular notions about growth, jobs, commute patterns, and land use may have to change.

“Everybody’s afraid of growth and what growth is going to do,” reflects Bill Kortum of Petaluma, a longtime leader of the Sonoma County environmental community. “Growth in people’s minds is a mental image of sprawl. What we could introduce with rail is a different form of growth that is more pedestrian-friendly, more transit-oriented.

“I would predict that 25 or 30 percent of the population, given the chance, would buy into that.”

Adding rail to the transit mix “gives you the capacity to absorb growth in a different way,” adds Peter Calthorpe, the Berkeley-based architect and planning consultant who conducted the rail feasibility study. “It induces growth, but it gives you an opportunity to reorganize growth.”

All General Plans allow for additional housing, he reasons, including some multifamily housing, such as apartments, town houses, condominiums, and senior complexes. “Rather than allow that to dribble out around the periphery, if the multifamily [development] is clustered toward the transit, it makes more sense,” Calthorpe says.

“The same with jobs. Either they can be spread out and cause congestion on all local arterials, or they can be closer and provide people a choice about using their cars.”

Likewise, says Gambill, by adjusting the distance between rail stations, “you can design a railroad to promote sprawl”–he cites BART as a prime example–“or you can design a railroad to promote compact land use, containing the growth as infill in cities. Even high-density growth, which is a lot less destructive than the low-density sprawl we’ve been getting.”

One antidote to sprawl is urban growth boundaries, which were approved by voters in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Healdsburg last fall and are now under consideration in Petaluma and Windsor. Those measures–and a voter-approved county ordinance that establishes firm community separators around any city that adopts a UGB–were designed to curtail growth-inducing annexations and challenge city planners to find creative ways to focus commercial and residential development inside existing boundaries.

“Urban growth boundaries are a good start, and the county General Plan is really strong in terms of encouraging city-centered growth and preservation of ag lands,” says Krista Shaw, the Sonoma County spokesperson for Greenbelt Alliance, “but political winds change and the ag lands can’t protect themselves.

“We need to make sure we respect the General Plans as we go.”

Greenbelt Alliance is less concerned about the lands adjacent to the railway corridor than about the potential ripple effect on outlying rural areas. “When you have new transit infrastructure, you have to be careful that you don’t create a bigger problem than you started with,” Shaw cautions, “because [those improvements] tend to lift the barriers against development in the rural areas where it doesn’t belong.”

And while good planning is a vital part of the process, planning alone is not enough. “The problem is, when those projects come up, they don’t get built the way they were planned,” Shaw observes. “The neighbors see ‘higher density’ and they think ‘ghetto,’ so when that kind of project comes forward the neighbors band together to fight it and the project becomes considerably downsized by the time it gets built.

“Then we have the same old development we have all over town.”

In Petaluma–where work is getting under way on the 18-month process of preparing a specific plan for a 300-acre strip through the center of the city, an area that encompasses the Petaluma River, the railroad tracks, and the city’s old railroad station–residents will get a chance to put these ideas to the test. Most of the land is commercially zoned, and much of it is vacant; virtually all of the study area lies within a redevelopment district. But even as it prepares to accommodate the railroad, the Petaluma study is being careful not to count on it, either.

“It assumes that at some point, light commuter rail will occur, but its purpose is not to establish that use,” says Petaluma planner Vin Smith, project manager for the specific plan.

“The goal is to introduce more residents in close proximity to the downtown as well as provide for a larger job base, but a lot of that is going to be tested through economic analysis.”

Already, the city anticipates some form of mixed-use development along the tracks in the future. “It’s a very broad definition today,” Smith notes. “The largest task of this specific plan is to give it some more definition.”

How to get there from here.

THIS KIND OF PREPARATION is essential if rail transit is ever going to come to pass, says Supervisor Mike Cale. “We have to get all the individual cities in Sonoma County to buy into it,” Cale says. “Each city that’s on the corridor is going to have to revisit its General Plan, how it wants to build out, for this to work. Because ultimate population centers are important for the rail to work.”

Jim Harberson, the south county supervisor who also sits on the Golden Gate Transit board of directors, predicts that local governments will have to spell out their plans for future development around each proposed train station before an initiative can go very far. “It would be helpful if there were general plans or specific plans for those areas around the train stations. That would set people’s minds at ease a bit,” he says.

“I think it will be a requirement that you have high-density development” in those areas, he continues, “but it won’t necessarily be residential.”

He suggests that workers don’t mind driving a modest distance from home to a train station as long as they don’t face another trip when they get off the train: “It’s better to have high-density jobs at the transit nodes, rather than high-density housing.”

Yet jobs are a sore point for many rail skeptics. Bob Harder, executive director for the North Coast Builders Exchange in Santa Rosa, contends that a two-county commuter rail line “will really perpetuate the situation where Marin provides the jobs but people live up north, so Marin is not required to provide adequate housing for all the jobs they provide.”

Harberson agrees cheerfully. “In Marin, I’m sure that is an ulterior motive,” he says. But he is not terribly concerned. “People are going to work where they work and live where they want to live. Individual citizens are not too concerned about jobs/housing imbalance.”

However, that imbalance is lessening, a trend that is expected to continue. Kortum notes that while the Association of Bay Area Governments projects that Marin will develop 40,000 new jobs over the next 15-20 years, they also say that Sonoma County will create 90,000 new jobs during the same years, figures that were confirmed by the Calthorpe study.

“About 64 percent of those jobs, if local planners pay attention, could be within reach of that transit line,” Kortum says. “Think about it, what an effect that would have on traffic, if you could get your labor force to use [public] transit.”

Even now in the two counties, “the jobs/housing imbalance is much healthier than most people think,” Calthorpe insists. “Eighty percent of the commute trips are within Sonoma County, and not across the county line. The idea that Sonoma County is a bedroom community is a bit outdated. And the job growth that is projected by ABAG will move Sonoma County to an even better balance.”

Calthorpe also disputes the contention that there must be significant increases in the density of development along the railway. “The densities are already in the General Plans. It’s not a matter of increasing them, but just relocating them,” he stresses.

“The densities we’re talking about are 10-12 units per acre, which can be achieved with small, single-family homes. We’re not talking about radical multistory buildings; we’re talking about densities that can be accomplished by using what used to be the traditional starter house, the bungalow.”

In Calthorpe’s vision, the key is “walkability, not density,” he explains. “Making a neighborhood an area where you can walk to local shops and cafes and restaurants and where jobs are within walking distance of the station.”

But this idealized concept is not a prerequisite for rail to work, Calthorpe says. “We also analyzed the system without any land-use changes at all. We went from 25,000 passengers to 20,000, which is still a very healthy system. So even without any land-use changes, the system still makes a lot of sense, because the existing land-use pattern is so transit-oriented.”

Mark Green is also a fan of walkable neighborhoods, but he views mixed-use developments as the design of choice. “It’s not so much housing or job sites, but how you do them,” he explains.

“We’ve developed this strange planning model where people don’t live anywhere near where they work, so people have to use cars to get back and forth. That’s a very recent phenomenon and a very weird one.

“What we need to be doing around the train stations is develop multi-use mixed development that provides retail uses for the people who live there, a variety of multifamily housing, especially above commercial or office uses,” he elaborates. In such a neighborhood of 3- to 4-story buildings, “you could have vital economic activity, and people able to get to and from their transportation and their basic services without using an automobile.”

Green lauds the Calthorpe study for providing hard data to support the viability of mass transit in the North Bay. The key finding: “There is enough ridership” even under the status quo, and “if you push land use into a more progressive direction around the rail stations, you get even more ridership.”

Supervisor Cale believes there is now widespread agreement that rail will be a key part of Sonoma County’s future, even if it doesn’t happen right away. “Some people may have unreasonable expectations about how and when it will come together,” he says. “You really have to project it out over 20 years to make it a truly integrated system that’s going to be functional.

“If we’re going to have a rail system that’s going to work, we’d damn well better plan for it, and plan well,” Cale says bluntly. “If we rush to judgment, we’re going to fail. It’s as simple as that.”

From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.



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