The Press Democrat   May 10, 2002


As Press Democrat Editorial Director Pete Golis chronicled in a recent column, reaching consensus on solutions to our transportation and traffic problems has been an on-again, off-again romance. However, there is reason to be much more optimistic about future prospects than the column indicates. We see a light at the end of the tunnel ... and it is a train coming down the tracks in the not too distant future.

A few of the participants from past transportation sales tax campaigns may still be frustrated from recent defeats, but under the leadership of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the Sonoma/Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) Commission, many more of us have been working together to forge a new consensus and craft meaningful solutions. For example, last fall the transportation commission approved a first ever long-term countywide transportation plan. This plan envisions an integrated, transportation system promoting smart growth land use and development patterns. This plan has been embraced by representatives from both the environmental and business communities and many other interested parties. Just as important, general plans recently adopted or currently under review in Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Petaluma and the county, all reflect principles that include maintenance of community separators and open space, infill development, transit- and pedestrian-oriented development and investment in bike lanes, walkways and roads to reduce traffic congestion.

While short-term economic factors led to the recent pragmatic decision to delay the vote on a sales tax measure for transit, there is ongoing collaboration between the Marin and Sonoma county boards of supervisors and between interest groups in both counties. This spirit of collaboration is evident in the work of the SMART Commission, which has made significant progress on a number of key planning issues and is ready to launch a comprehensive public review and engineering design process this summer. Completing this two-year work effort will allow passenger rail service to be up and running soon after voter approval of a proposed 2004 ballot measure.

Passage of a voter approved transportation sales tax is, in fact, much less daunting than many might realize. With the policy consensus that has emerged through the development of the county-wide transportation plan, most of the divisive sources of opposition have dissolved. With the state's recent approval of special bonds to fund highway construction, plans for widening Highway 101 from North Petaluma Boulevard to Rohnert Park Expressway and Steele Lane to Windsor are moving ahead. In fact, the design and review process required by state law (prior to construction) will begin this summer. That means all of Highway 101 widening from Windsor to Novato is in the process of being completed.

In 1998, a transportation plan including highway and rail was endorsed by 72 percent of the voters and an accompanying measure to fund the plan failed by only 2 percent. In a recent poll of Marin voters, 56 percent of voters favored rail start-up. Despite conventional wisdom, campaign money is not the key factor in gaining voter support. In 2000, Measure B, aimed at financing rail start-up, with a campaign fund of $10,000 gained more votes than Measure A, funded to the tune of $800,000.

Hopefully there will be a groundswell of support for these projects as the public gets a chance to learn more about the rail and highway widening projects during the outreach and education processes. With increasing public confidence in the ability of our land use ordinances to effectively manage the amount and pace of growth, we expect that by the time a ballot measure is needed, we will be able to gain the additional voter support we need to surpass the two-thirds majority threshold. In demonstrating ``self help'' by passing a local sales tax we will provide the leverage needed by our Congressional representatives to capture our share of federal funds.

Finally, we don't think that rail should be editorially categorized as a concession; rail is a necessity.  A 1997 land use and transportation study found that every mode of transportation, including rail, will be required -- and congestion will still exist. Recent circulation studies in Petaluma reveal that at build-out the city will have the worst congestion picture ever witnessed by the consultant. He warned the city council to address land use and make use of every mode of transportation in updating its general plan. It is critical that we recognize that it will take trains, buses, roads, bikes and pedestrian paths -- plus individual commitments to reduce car trips -- in order to achieve the kind of mobility we all desire.

We are lucky to own the rail corridor which allows the least expensive start-up cost of passenger rail in the nation. The corridor is the most important north-south link for mass transit that we will ever have available. Our generation needs to ensure that we take full advantage of the opportunity. We call on all interested people to join us in making a positive contribution to the future of Sonoma County. For more information on the train, check out the SMART Web site at; for information on the 101 widening projects, go to the SCTA Web site at www.sonoma-county.orgSCTA.

Bill Kortum is chairman of Sonoma County Conservation Action. Mike Hauser is president of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.