Options and more options for the new San Rafael Transit Center

Thanks to a century’s worth of bad regulations, the Bettini Transit Center in downtown San Rafael needs to be rebuilt so SMART can get to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. The transit center is the busiest transit hub in the North Bay and forms the lynchpin of service in Marin. Getting it right, therefore, is critical.

GGT presented four options to the public, each of which has its own set of trade-offs. You can find the presentation, including video and rejected ideas, on GGT's website. I break down these options into two big parts – customer service and operations – with the former being slightly more important than the latter.

Customer service involves the ease and speed of transfers. GGT and Marin Transit (MT) operate on a pulse-point model, meaning each bus route is timed to arrive at the same time as other routes so customers can transfer to the bus serving their final destination. A bus arriving at the transit center should also be able to do so quickly, with few turns and stop lights, so the stop’s time penalty is minimal.

Operations concerns maintenance and replacement costs of the transit center as well as the stop penalty, which adds precious seconds and minutes to a route’s round-trip time. The overall cost of the facility is also a concern, but only one option has obvious cost problems.

GGT isn’t going to choose which station layout it wants until the end of the year, and the plans here will be shifted a bit and undergo environmental evaluation, which would include traffic impacts.

Two-Story Concept

The two-story concept. Image by Golden Gate Transit.

This plan calls for a multi-level station over Third Street, with most of the buses stopping on the second level. It would be expensive to build and maintain, difficult to not be ugly, and would create pretty substantial stop penalties. Transfers would also have to happen between the two levels, adding complexity to transfers. The longest transfer time would be 4 minutes. The only real benefit is that people wouldn’t have to cross the street to get a bus, but that’s an issue that could be resolved with better traffic signaling.

I’m writing this one off.

Across the Freeway

The Across the Freeway concept. Image by Golden Gate Transit.

This plan calls for putting 6 of the 17 bus bays under the freeway, facing Irwin. It eliminates a bunch of park-and-ride spots, puts transfers far from one another, and covers over part of the creek, which would increase costs. It forces transferring passengers to cross Heatherton, which is incredibly dangerous. (That it also eliminates the best taqueria in Marin is just an insult.)

The upside is on bus operations, as buses could easily get between Irwin and Heatherton as part of their stop, and it maintains the southbound freeway stops. So while it decreases the stop penalty, it increases the transfer penalty, to 4 minutes 30 seconds, and is a more dangerous design. When taken on top of construction costs, I think this one can also be written off.

Fourth Street Gateway

This plan calls for putting about half of its bus bays to the south of Fourth and half to the north of Fourth. It would eliminate right turns from Heatherton to Fourth, but given the amount of pedestrian traffic across Fourth in this scenario, that’s probably okay. The transfer penalty would be 3 minutes 30 seconds at most.

There are actually few downsides to both bus operations or for transfers. Southbound freeway buses get easy stops on Heatherton and buses coming down Fourth Street can easily move into the station in whichever direction makes sense. Transferring passengers can easily see whether their bus has arrived or not from anywhere in the station, and all passengers can easily access downtown San Rafael.

Whistlestop Block

The Whistlestop Block concept. Image by GGT.

This plan puts all but three bus bays onto the same block as the Whistlestop building. Those remaining three go on Third Street. One notable feature is turning the Whistlestop building into the transit center’s customer service office, reactivating the old train station as a transportation center.

This plan has its downsides and upsides. Most notably, it has operational problems that increase the stop penalty. Currently, no bus lines operate on Third, so those Third Street bus bays are going to have to be used by some buses diverting off Fourth. It also has no bays on Heatherton, meaning freeway buses will need to divert into the transit center. This could be solved by moving the Third Street bays to the existing transit-center block along Heatherton.

Transfer penalties will be a little longer than current, at 4 minutes, and there is no line-of-sight to all the buses currently at the station from all the bus bays like there is today. This is partially resolved by moving the Third Street bays, but the Tamalpais bays would still be out of sight.

On a positive note, the only street to cross is Tamalpais, which would be turned into a bus-only roadway. Rather than deal with major traffic, crossing would be trivial. Moving the bays would eliminate this crossing and force a Third Street crossing, which would require a dedicated pedestrian crossing signal. Reactivating Whistlestop is also an attractive sentiment, but sentimentality shouldn’t outweigh practical concerns.

So what?

Personally, I lean towards the Fourth Street Gateway, as it has the fewest drawbacks for the transit agency and its customers. Cutting right turns from Heatherton to Fourth is not ideal, but traffic should be diverted to Third and Fifth anyway to maximize the walkability of Fourth.

The Whistlestop Block is a mixed bag in that it has both strong upsides and strong downsides. More information is needed to understand whether the good outweighs the bad.

The next step in this process is choosing alternatives for environmental review, which should quantify the ups and downs of the station options and allow for a good, final choice.

Take Golden Gate Transit's survey by July 15 to weigh in.