Trolley Vision: From Southern to Central Marin

One of the Marin residents who helped start Marin Trolleys talks about his vision for additional public transportation in Marin.


Michael Rex has devoted a lot of time to bringing trolleys to Marin.

The Sausalito architect helped start the nonprofit Marin Trolleys with Allan Nichol and local leaders. Rex had originally focused on the idea of a streetcar on Sausalito’s main thoroughfare, Bridgeway. The vision expanded to a trolley connecting downtown Sausalito and Mill Valley in 2007.

A study of the possible southern Marin determined it too costly a venture for its limited destinations and usage, so planning officials turned their attention to the busier Fairfax to San Rafael corridor.

It took awhile to get some San Rafael leaders to support looking into a new transit option, Rex said, but now .

The trolley vision has seen little stark opposition on Patch, but it has sparked some civil and thoughtful dialogue. 

Rex’s vision for trolleys in Marin expands past a fixed line connecting communities. “I want to bring trolleys to the doorstep,” he said. “Anyone in transit will tell you the first link is the hardest to provide because people are so spread out." 

Rex said trolleys should involve a comprehensive system that takes people door to door with an on-demand shuttle system.

The shuttle system wouldn’t be funded or operated by a transit authority, Rex said, but would instead be run by various neighborhood’s homeowners associations.

“They would each contract for their own shuttle. Imagine a little van with a GPS-activated map on their dashboard,” Rex said. 

Residents could push a button on their smart phone to alert the shuttle they need a ride to the nearest trolley stop, he said.  

“The idea is each neighborhood has a few that travel around the neighborhood like little bees,” Rex said, who added that the mode of transportation could vary by community. “Ross can have limos, Fairfax can have VW buses.”

The local transit could help build community and provide extra security, Rex said. “I think we are all isolated in our houses and our cars, it’s about quality of life and not just about transportation.”

Rex also hasn’t given up on the southern Marin trolley project, although he had to take a hiatus from working with Marin Trolleys because he had to focus on his architectural work after the recession hit.  

He said the firm used for the original Sausalito to Mill Valley study “came to the table with unfortunate biases,” including the mindset that trolleys wouldn’t work in an area like Marin.

And while the efforts for southern Marin trolley haven’t died, they are definitely on hold for additional reasons. Late Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan was a strong supporter of the vision and contributed funds to the original southern Marin trolley study, Rex said. When the supervisor unexpectedly died in March 2011 it “took some of the wind out of” Rex’s sails. “When he died it set me back a bit. There are so few leaders like him.”

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darla November 05, 2012 at 04:52 PM
It would be nice if there was some transit available for the high school students to get back into sleepy hollow instead of having to walk ,drive, or be picked up. Do you realize there is no bus available for them as an option. So sad.
Rico November 05, 2012 at 06:02 PM
If some homeowners associations want to start up a mini bus service, what's stopping them now ? And what would that have to do with any new trolley system ? And, I thought a trolley car was a rubber tired bus powered by overhead DC electric lines. With all the concerns about investing in the undergrounding of electric lines (like they did on E. Blithedale Ave. a few years ago), why would people advocate slapping up more new unsightly electric lines on the main arteries down in the flatlands where the trolleys run ? The more Rex writes about his vision, the more it seems ridiculous. I think the original study and conclusion of the proposal in southern Marin was right in the first place, but they did not even mention the new overhead electric lines to power the trolleys. Pay millions of dollars to underground existing electric lines on E. Blithedale, and then turn around and add new ones to existing ones on Miller Ave. makes no sense at all. And also, the electric power grid operators are worried about having not enough power in some areas right now, so to think of adding more at this time is stupid. And is the electricity used by the proposed trolley systems going to be purchased from Shell Oil and marked up by the MCE/MEA brokerage agency ? I think that it is nice to have visions and dreams, and they are amusing and thought provoking, That invites more questions that the dreamers can try and answer before further promotion campaigns.
Rico November 05, 2012 at 06:27 PM
I seldom go to S.F. anymore, and have never ridden on a trolley car or a train car, but I just realized I might be wrong about trolley cars running on rubber tires. They might be actually metal wheeled vehicles running on tracks embedded on existing public streets. If that is the case, the ride will be noisier and rougher than a rubber tired bus. So, trolley cars are noisier, rougher, more expensive and much more limited than the existing bus system here in Marin. And the existing bus system is struggling now with intra-county service cuts and layoffs. The most important question is, how can we afford a new trolley system that would never go to half the places of our existing, struggling bus system ? Billboards have been banned in Marin county, so do these trolley promoters think that revenue from advertising (rolling billboards) is going to fund the trolley system ? I say, any new trolley system should be completely funded by private investors and potential riders. And this new private "Central Marin Trolley Authority" should pay a tax to use our public streets. And this tax should go to helping out the intra-county bus system here in Marin
Jessica Mullins (Editor) November 05, 2012 at 06:43 PM
Something I didn't make very clear in this article is that it's entirely unknown what kind of trolley - or public transit - might be a good fit for the area. It could range from a rubber-wheeled trolley to a light rail to something else. Part of what the feasibility study (http://patch.com/A-yZF1) would do is examine different options. Apologies if I caused any confusion.
Bob Hunter November 05, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Can you resist calling other people's ideas "stupid," or labeling them "dreamers?" We need a future without cars, coal fired utilities, and toxic building codes. if we're to remain healthy on this planet. Can you drop the personal comments and come up with some ideas?
Bob Hunter November 05, 2012 at 06:55 PM
So, your favored transportation should be subsidized by taxpayers and others should not?
Bob Hunter November 05, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Great idea! Getting students around efficiently should be one of our top transpo priorities.
John Ferguson November 05, 2012 at 07:09 PM
The form that any new (or existing) public transit option takes is far less important than where it will run and whether it will share the existing traffic lanes with private cars (a non-starter) or get its own dedicated lanes/tracks. Only when public transportation has its own lanes free of car traffic will it become a truly viable and self sustaining model for transit in Marin.
Bob Hunter November 05, 2012 at 07:15 PM
John, How do you envision GGT in the future? What other modes? Partnering with a broader authority?
John Ferguson November 05, 2012 at 07:40 PM
Bob, I think it all depends on how much of an investment we're willing to make. People get excited about rail but it's not particularly flexible and it's quite expensive so it's probably only a viable option for the main corridors (such as the 101 corridor in Marin). We have a hobbled bus service that really only serves commuters. It's hobbled by a lack of flexibility in terms of bus size - we essentially are running 40 footers for all runs which is overkill for much of the service. And it's hobbled during commute hours by having to share the roadway with gridlocked traffic. If we could single track bus service on dedicated lanes from Pastori Avenue in Fairfax to the transit center in San Rafael and then join to a dedicated system along the 101 corridor that would work really well, but it will involve a fairly major investment in infrastructure changes all along the miracle mile and perhaps down Center blvd in Fairfax and San Anselmo. Ultimately, to serve a greater share of the population we need to make a hub and spokes system that's truly integrated and broadcasting it's status real time so people can plan on it and trust it. There's a pretty healthy disconnect between the ridership of GGT and the management of GGT now that will have to be resolved before we can see any real progress in the future.
Rico November 05, 2012 at 08:00 PM
I agree, where it will run, how it serves the needs and most importantly who will pay for it are all concerns. To create a new transportation system that does not use existing publicly owned right of way would be extremely expensive and impossible in 90 percent of Marin. Also Bob Hunter, I'm sorry but the answer to your question is NO, I can't resist. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion, nothing personal against any one person. If you want to contribute something of value to the discussion on this thread, feel free. So far I have only seen put downs and your own personal agenda from you but no real understanding. Do you live in Marin ? Do you have extra money to invest in a new trolley system ? And Jessica, are trolley cars rubber tired buses that run on public streets ? I honestly don't know.
Bob Hunter November 05, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Thanks, John. I've often felt that smaller buses should be used for In Marin routes. I also like your idea of riders being able to connect to transit with their smart phone for service.
Rico November 05, 2012 at 08:23 PM
John, there are actually 2 bus systems used here. The commuter runs use the large 40 foot buses that run to S.F., I'm sure that you have seen them crawling up Waldo Grade at 40 MPH. The commuter runs are almost always full, and are viable and efficient. It is the intra-county runs that are struggling now with service cuts, budget cuts and layoffs. There are many smaller buses used for the intra-county system. One reason is that it is wasteful to run a 40 foot bus on routes that only have a few people on it most of the time. The commuter lines are doing well and will always be funded and fully utilized , it is the intra-county services that many students, seniors and people that don't own personal transportation rely on that are struggling now. And that is what the proposed trolley system is, intra-county, not to be confused with the S.F. commuter bus system. The only way any trolley or train system could ever go to S.F. is through an underwater tube, and engineers say that is impossible because of the strong currents and shipping lanes in Racoon Straights. The GG bridge was not designed for any extra weight like even light rail. Oh, and for the hobbled commuter buses, I see them in the slow lane going 40 MPH up the hill on 101, when all other traffic is whizzing by at 65+ MPH. The commuter runs are hobbled because they are under powered, not because of personal vehicular traffic.
John Ferguson November 05, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Thanks Ricardo - the only 'smaller' buses of the type I'm thinking of that I've ever seen running in Marin are the West Marin stagecoach buses. I know that GGT runs two types of buses over the bridge and IMO we need a third option for smaller and less popular routes if we're going to serve the smaller nooks and crannies of Marin with efficient bus service. I don't think going 40 mph over the Waldo grade is the problem with the commuter lines. There's almost never a real backup on the Waldo grade. The problems usually start in Marin City or Strawberry on the northbound runs. I've been on the 24 line many nights between 5 and 7 pm when the traffic comes to an absolute standstill on the 101 right around the Richardson Bay overpass before you get to Strawberry. The commute lane is frequently backed up as well, so we'll need a truly dedicated bus lane (no Prius drivers, no Lexus lane entrants) if we're going to make the bus commute a FASTER and BETTER option than driving. Southbound on the 24, my experience has shown me that the real backups start at Bon Air road and completely snarl traffic to the 101 from there. This is a true catastrophe, with much of the car traffic now self-diverting into the Bon Air shopping center parking lot only to reenter the *single lane* of westbound traffic to 101 at Eliseo blvd. This section MUST be improved, hopefully with a dedicated bus lane starting at Bon Air.
Rico November 05, 2012 at 10:18 PM
I agree John, The evening commute is always bad starting at around hwy 1/Manzanita. The only cure for that for buses would be to add a new lane strictly for buses to 101. That would solve the bus problem Simply hogging one of the existing lanes for buses would never fly at all, and will never happen. Another idea would be to build a subway under 101 from Marin City all the way up to Windsor, that would help Marin, the north bay and Sonoma commuters immensely. The subway could run a spur line under SFD Blvd to Fairfax too. Again , all of this would mainly to help evening commuters, and might lure some commuters away from using their personal autos. In Marin, there is a very high percentage of people that don't need to commute at all, and the local roads would be relieved of some congestion.
Bill McGee November 06, 2012 at 07:18 AM
Hi Ricardo - before you start railing on Rex, you might want to do just a tiny bit of research...like reading his vision which you ridiculed. If you had bothered to click on the link in the story, you would have seen that his trolley vision included no overhead wires. I have no position yet on the value the ideas posed in Rex’ vision, but I would be interested in reading the results of a study if it takes place. I did learn by a simple Google search, that trolleys and trams are NOT defined by the type of wheels, nor do all Trolleys or Trams have the same type of power source. Your disrespect and in this case ridicule, to those that do not share you view of the world gets old Ricardo as Bob Hunter and others have pointed out. I hope you have a better day tomorrow Ricardo.
pdog November 06, 2012 at 03:47 PM
I think Jeepneys would be much more fitting for Ross.


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