This is what it’s like to drive along Highway 101 in Marin and Sonoma counties to the north of San Francisco. I do it frequently enough to know it’s miserable. And there really isn’t any alternative.
The highway receives continuous upgrades year after year. Road improvements are a state religion. A few million dollars here… A few million dollars there… The roads always get wider, but traffic congestion never really gets any better. At least not for long.
In 2002 the voters of Marin (69%) and Sonoma (73%) approved a 0.25 cent sales tax to resurrect a century old passenger rail line. The dynamics of the SMART train vote are complicated, but can best be summed up by referencing a headline from The Onion, “98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others.” The underlying hope is that enough people will take the train that folks in their cars will have a better drive up and down Highway 101. The success of that concept is wholly reliant on how the land near the rail stations is used. I’m not holding my breath.
I wasn’t in the loop regarding the political decisions that placed this new rail platform between a cul-de-sac of tract homes, a garden apartment complex, and an old paint store. But I have to wonder… Where exactly will people go when they step off the train? This seems like a fantastic way to lower the property values of nearby homes rather than capitalize on an amazing opportunity for the town to create real wealth from this massive public infrastructure investment.
Since I have to guess at the particulars I’m inclined to believe that the owner of the Coddingtown Mall had his hand on the scales when these decisions were being made. Perhaps there’s a long term plan to transform the neighborhood that I’m not privy to. A Park-and-Ride Lifestyle Towne Centre might be in the making. “The Villas™ at Retention Pond®” as I like to call such places. It’s better than an immense surface parking lot and a half dead mall I suppose. We’ll see.
There’s another station opening in town that makes much more sense. The old historic town center (no italics) is still walkable and charming. But politics hasn’t been kind to this area either.
Decades of suburban style redevelopment and economic shifts have left large portions of land near the old rail station completely vacant. Ten years ago a well intentioned developer bought a ruined warehouse and proposed a three hundred unit building for seniors. The local business association worked with the city council to kill the project by a thousand slow bureaucratic cuts. They wanted luxury condos instead, not affordable housing for pensioners. Upscale customers were preferred to Granny and her Social Security checks. So ten years and ten million dollars later the land sits fallow. Let’s declare a victory for the local economy!
SMART? I love the concept in theory. I want to use the new train. I want it to be successful. I want nearby communities to thrive. But I have very low expectations. For many years to come there will continue to be a low grade highway oriented environment and an emerging parallel low grade rail oriented environment. That’s just reality. I’ll make do with “good enough.” Such is life.