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Rail Thin

[whitespace] train
Janet Orsi

Train time: In 1996, passengers inspected a self-propelled, diesel-powered Regio Sprinter like the one rail proponents would like to see offering local rail service.

How much train can you buy for $175 million? Not much.

By Janet Wells

WHEN COMMUTERS think about taking the train to work, they fantasize fast, convenient, and environmentally friendly coaches. Like Bay Area Rapid Transit. But BART, at an estimated cost of $115 million per mile, is a bit out of Sonoma County's price range. With $175 million proposed in a pair of Nov. 3 transit-tax ballot measures to cover a 60-mile rail system, what can residents and commuters expect to get for their tax dollars?

Small and slow.

Measure B, the transportation advisory companion to the Measure C proposal to raise the county's sales tax by 1/2 cent, doesn't provide a detailed passenger rail plan. But the Transportation and Land Use Study that served as the basis for Measure B recommended making do by adding a bit of spit and polish to the current freight rail system: a single-track standard-gauge rail line that can handle a maximum speed of 40 mph, with 14 stations between Healdsburg and San Rafael.

Under that plan, the diesel-powered passenger rolling stock, as train cars are called, would run every half hour during peak commute hours and drop to 60-minute intervals until 10 p.m., when freight trains would get the right-of-way through the night.

"If you're going to have commuter rail that's really going to get people out of their cars, it has to be high-speed, comfortable, and get them from where they are to where they want to go. This system will do none of these. It takes an electric train like BART to move people," says Richard Gaines, with the Campaign Against Wasting Millions. "I'm all for a real railroad, but I want something that's up-to-date technology. There's no point in putting good money after bad into a system that goes nowhere."

Settling for a somewhat antiquated system that will likely attract a low ridership (a public opinion poll last year found that only 14 percent of rail supporters would actually use the trains) doesn't bother proponents of the rail portion of Measure B. In fact, they consider it good business sense to start slow and build. "The beauty of it is that because we own it, we can repair it and buy rolling stock," says Bill Kortum, board chairman of Sonoma County Conservation Action, which has endorsed both transportation measures. "It's not like putting in an electrical system with huge up-front capital. You work your way into it."

Dick Day, also an SCCA board member, agrees, "We're looking at this for the long term. Rail will develop slowly. What we want is the cities to put their growth in areas close to the rail stations. It's important that rail is available for Sonoma County residents."

Suzanne Wilford, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, says sources of funding for the $175 million rail system over 15 years include $20 million from ticket fares, $17 million from state transportation bond measure Prop. 116, and $138 million from increased sales tax revenues. Sonoma County also is in line to compete for additional federal funds for rail that could replace funds from sales taxes.

Overall, $92 million of the budget would be spent on upgrading tracks, signals, control systems, station platforms, communications, ticket vending machines, a maintenance facility, sidings, communications, and 25 diesel-electric rail cars. Those cars would likely be akin to a European-style Diesel Light-Rail Vehicle, which has diesel engines generating electrical power.

The $5.5 million annual operating costs, which include train operators, fuel, maintenance, sales, fare collections, insurance, and administration, deplete the remainder of the $175 million proposed budget over 15 years.

BUT CRITICS SAY that's simply not enough to construct an efficient rail system that will lure drivers off of the freeway. A report released this week by the Environmental Defense Fund--an organization that boasts 1,200 members locally and opposes the transit tax measures--concludes that the rail line and proposed freeway improvements will fail to curb traffic congestion and sprawl. The report, prepared by EDF transportation program manager Michael Cameron, points out that the transit plan fails to list detailed capital or the operating plan for the proposed rail system. "The information that is available ignores altogether, or seriously underestimates, several costs," the report notes. "For example, the plan does not account for a southern storage yard for rail cars, yet most functioning rail systems need storage capacity at both ends of the line.

"Additionally," the report continues, "to operate trains at the frequency proposed, the rail system would need an automated control system to manage trains traveling in opposite directions on a single track to prevent them from colliding, yet the proposed rail funding falls $27 million to $40 million short of the full cost of this system."

In the final report of the three-part series, scheduled for release Oct. 27, EDF will contend that any rail plan in Sonoma County would face considerable obstacles to success.

Still, part of EDF's complaint is that the existing plan fails to state precise financial details that should be ascertained before the public commits to such a lofty project. "It makes no sense to make a down payment on a rail system if the rest of the financial needs have not been thought through and if there is no clear source of matching funds," the report concludes. "The county simply cannot afford to gamble 20 years of transit funds on a system that has not been carefully designed and which has not been demonstrated to have a credible chance of successfully attracting riders.

"Other counties in California, notably in Los Angeles, have pursued similar strategies only to see total transit ridership decline even though total investments in transit more than doubled."

In a recent interview, Cameron estimated that the rail project will experience major cost overruns that will lead either to a decision by county officials to issue pricey bonds or to drop parts of plan altogether.

Supporters of the rail system most often point to the South Bay when describing a passenger train service that is desirable, though that rail system is yet to be tested.

Sonoma County's proposed rail system is comparable to the Stockton-San Jose line scheduled to start Oct. 19, says Arthur Lloyd, a board member of CalTrain (a commuter rail service on the Peninsula) and a retired Amtrak director. The line was going to have two trains in each direction daily, with a capacity of 3,200 passengers, but orders for more trains have been made before the trains have even started rolling.

"They went out to sell passes in advance and they are already oversold," says Lloyd, a San Mateo County resident. "They started modestly and it's just gone ape."

"Incremental is the best way to start," Lloyd adds. "I am absolutely horrified that some people say you can't run a commute line on a single track. That's what everyone starts with. Nobody will ride it? That's pure unadulterated what-will-make-your-lawns-turn-green." Lloyd throws in the caveat that the key to Sonoma County rail success may be convenient links with San Francisco, and even under the best scenario links from Santa Rosa to Larkspur are a long way down the line.

"[Rail planners] should talk about Larkspur if they have any brains," he says. "The real market is San Francisco, and the best way to serve it is the ferry."

Even if Measure B wins at the ballot box, rail advocates will face an uphill battle getting the passenger rail system implemented anytime soon. Sonoma County Conservation Action, which joined a coalition of business leaders and public officials to push the transit tax, is insisting that the rail system be given a priority. SCCA made significant concessions in its support of the sales tax measures, since thousands of tons of gravel for the extra freeway lanes will come from the Russian River, where gravel mining already has depleted the riverbed. It made that concession in the frim belief that Measures B and C offer the last chance for construction of a rail line in the county.

But the business community, which agreed to inclusion of the rail line, wants the extra freeway lanes built first. In the end, transit tax opponents say, the freeway expansion, with its predicted cost overruns, will use up a lion's share of the sales tax funds, leaving the railway underfunded and too impractical ever to attract a signiicant share of riders.

Under the currently planned pay-as-you-go sales tax option, EDF estimates, the train won't be on line until 2010.

Editor Greg Cahill contributed to this article.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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