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January 2001

The $22 Million Alto Tunnel Debate

By Terri Alvillar

Should $5,000,000-$50,000,000 be spent to reconstruct the 1/2 mile-long Alto Tunnel (between Mill Valley and Corte Madera) for bicycle and pedestrian use? This is what the Draft Marin County Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan ("the Plan") recommends. Authors of the plan, ALTA Transportation Consulting are being paid approximately $212,000 for their work. Most of these funds were made available as a result of the state's Transportation Development Act of 1971 (TDA) that allows spending for such comprehensive planning once every five years.

TDA project criteria states: "Emphasis should be for accommodation of bicycle commuters rather than recreational bicycle uses." It defines a "bicycle commuter" as a person making a trip by bicycle primarily for transportation purposes, including, but not limited to, travel to work, school, shopping, or other destination that is a center of activity, and does not include a trip by bicycle primarily for physical exercise or recreation without such a destination." (California Streets and Highways Code Sec. 890-894.2)

If the Alto Tunnel were reconstructed, how many more bicyclists and pedestrians would leave their cars at home and walk or ride to work, school, the store, or the park?

In July of this year, I asked the principal of ALTA, Michael Jones, to describe the studies his firm conducted to determine the range of potential commuting bicyclists, as opposed to recreational ones, which could justify reconstructing the tunnel. Mr. Jones' response was "ALTA did not make an estimate of the number of potential bicyclist or pedestrian commuters who would use the re-opened tunnels, nor were we scoped to do so." There is a fundamental problem here, in that the State of California requires the Plan to emphasize commute travel as opposed to recreational travel. By virtue of the state legislation, the Plan should have analyzed to what extent vehicle trips could be reduced by the implementation of its proposed goals and policies.

In September of 1998, I received a letter from then California State Senate Transportation Committee Chair, Quentin L. Kopp, regarding another TDA-funded contract between the County of Marin and ALTA. Senator Kopp stated "...under my 1997 legislation (Senate Bill 45), MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) now possesses the power to approve regional transportation projects... to the extent of 75% of the funds available in the State Highway Account for such purposes... I don't believe the State Highway Fund, revenue from state-owned toll bridges or federal transportation funds are intended for recreational bicycling facilities."

The County of Marin gives an annual award for the Bicycle Commuter of the Year. How many applicants were there for the award this year? According to Steve Petterle of the Open Space District, there were only 5 (five). Surely, there are many more bicycle commuters than five in the county but how many are there? Are there enough bicycle and pedestrian commuters to justify the reconstruction of the Alto Tunnel for transportation, as opposed to recreational, purposes? Surveys should have been done to analyze the realistic potential of this proposal.

As a former bicycle commuter of several years, I can say that sharing the roadway with motor vehicles is usually preferable to sharing bicycle/pedestrian paths. Several experienced cyclists have told me that even if the Alto Tunnel were opened, they wouldn't use it. Many cyclists enjoy the workout riding over the Corte Madera grade provides. Also, there are many obstacles to efficient bicycle commuting on typical bicycle/pedestrian pathways. They include unpredictable pedestrians and small children, strollers, the fragile elderly, people walking two or three abreast, and dogs off-leash, all of which slow the commute and present safety hazards.

Bicycle commuting on a bike path is like driving a car to work down a long road full of potholes. If a cyclist commuted between Corte Madera and Tiburon, it may not save any time at all to use the Alto Tunnel rather than the Hwy. 101 bike path; in fact, it could take longer. There are two main bicycle routes between Corte Madera and Mill Valley, one over Corte Madera grade, and an easier one adjacent to Highway 101. Corte Madera grade is unsafe for cyclists, especially southbound traveling uphill. Widening the shoulder to at least two feet, especially on uphill sections would greatly improve safety conditions.

Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) Executive Director, Debbie Hubsmith, is quoted as saying "Tunnels improve the flow of transportation. There are fewer cars on the road, and they are a welcome asset, improving property values."

Assuming the unlikely scenario that Corte Madera and Mill Valley homeowners are concerned about increasing their already cloud-capped property values, where is the evidence to show that putting a transportation freeway through their quiet, secluded neighborhoods would accomplish that objective? Is there not a greater likelihood that property values would suffer?

How many school children would travel the Alto Tunnel when each side of the hill has separate elementary, middle, and high school districts? How many parents would allow their children to travel alone through a 1/2-mile long tunnel? How much would 24-hour security cost to patrol the tunnel? How much would it cost to light the tunnel 24-hours a day? Would the tunnel become a homeless encampment? Would it attract drug and alcohol users? Would campfires be started in the tunnel? Would it become a magnet for crime? Would it become an escape route for burglars? Which police agency would have jurisdiction, and would the tunnel be accessible to paramedics and fire engines? Would the peacefulness and safety of neighborhoods adjacent to tunnel entrances be compromised?

If the goal is to create more affordable housing in Corte Madera and Mill Valley by reducing the value of existing residential development near the tunnel, an argument for the Alto Tunnel reconstruction might be made. It should be remembered that Ms. Hubsmith and the MCBC are being paid to market the North-South Bicycle Freeway, a project that initially was studied in 1994 at a cost to the County of $75,000. Hubsmith's organization, its affiliates and sponsors continue to accrue substantial financial benefits from the plan to reconstruct the Alto Tunnel.

On September 21, 1999, Marin County Supervisor Annette Rose signed a contract with Debbie Hubsmith and the MCBC for $10,169.91 to "Create a Countywide Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan and attempt to generate vast public participation in the process." Just two months earlier, the MCBC received another $10,000 grant from the bicycle industry lobbying organization, Bikes Belong. According to the July 25, 1999 Marin Independent Journal, "The money will go toward the creation of a bicycle "freeway" that would provide passage from the Golden Gate Bridge to Sonoma County... The $10,000 will go toward education materials about the program. The project is expected to cost $22.5 million."

Ms. Hubsmith described the purpose of the MCBC's funding: "developing bicycle facilities projects that will be funded by TEA-21, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century," and the source of their funding: "Thanks to the bicycle industry, Marin's North-South Bicycle Freeway will be at the forefront of the evolution." During the past year, the MCBC has received an additional $100,000 as a result of their connection to Bikes Belong, state and local sources

The Bikes Belong Coalition is supported by membership dues from bicycle industry companies, professionals, and organizations. All companies selling bicycle products or services are eligible for membership in Bikes Belong. Dues are $435 per $1 million in annual domestic bicycle-related sales. Gross annual sales of bicycles, and related products, in the United States exceeds five billion dollars. By their own description, Bikes Belong's mission is "putting more people on bikes more often, through the implementation of TEA-21."

One of the foremost proponents of the proposed "North-South Bicycle Freeway," is Bikes Belong Coalition member Patrick Seidler, president of Wilderness Trail Bikes, Mill Valley, a manufacturer and distributor of bicycle frames and accessories. Some MCBC members report that the MCBC was formed primarily to implement Seidler's plan to build the north-south route.

Two years ago, Mr. Seidler financed an all expense paid excursion to Holland for County Supervisors Kress and Kinsey. Kress, Seidler, and Hubsmith recently traveled to Washington, DC to lobby for funding that has been granted. Seidler, along with fellow County Bikeways Committee member, Debbie Hubsmith, helped select ALTA Transportation to receive the county Plan contract. According to the Marin County Public Works Department, Supervisor Kress's office has contracted with the Rails to Trails Conservancy, California, to perform a national survey to analyze trails through tunnels. The cost of this contract to Marin taxpayers is unknown.

The premise of a North-South Bicycle Freeway assumes that bike use would substitute for vehicle travel on Hwy. 101. Where are the surveys that indicate how many people would ride their bikes 30 miles each way to work or school? How many would ride 10 miles? How many would ride 5 miles? How many minutes are Marin residents willing, and able, to spend commuting by foot or by bicycle? The shorter the commute distance, the more likely individuals will walk or bicycle to work. Likewise, the shorter the commute, the more likely the route would not parallel Hwy. 101. Considering that over $400,000 has been spent to create and promote the bicycle Plan, surveys should have been done already to analyze the realistic potential of this proposal. The Plan and the MCBC are asking for millions of tax dollars to be spent on a project which has no verifiable demand.

ALTA's Plan recommends the establishment of bicycle rental facilities at ferry terminals. Is this a transportation improvement or an enhancement to tourism, especially off-road bicycle touring? Would bicycle rental facilities reduce vehicle traffic or would they dramatically increase tourist traffic from San Francisco to Sausalito, Larkspur, and through the Alto Tunnel? ALTA's 1998 collaboration with the County to produce the MCBC's bike map (at a cost of $5,000.) was touted as the means to show bicyclists how to "get from the towns to the dirt." Considering that the leaders of the MCBC and Patrick Seidler are longtime mountain bike race sponsors, single track bicycle trail builders, and mountain bike industry activists, it stands to reason that one purpose of this Plan is to increase access and opportunities for recreational off-road bicycling in Marin County.

Plan consultants and the MCBC are being paid handsomely to market reconstruction of the Alto Tunnel. However, the proposal must demonstrate that such a reconstruction would significantly reduce motor vehicle trips. To date, there is absolutely no current, local evidence to support that expectation. Money from the bicycle industry is pouring into Marin County in anticipation of burgeoning sales and rentals. If no data can be presented to justify the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars to reconstruct the Alto Tunnel for legitimate transportation purposes, it might be concluded that the primary intent of this proposal is to increase profits for the bicycle and tourism industries.

Transportation funding should be spent where it will enhance community bicycle and pedestrian facilities that reduce motor vehicle trips, not provide amusement park venues simply to increase corporate profits. Government officials must seek first to protect the public safety and quality of life in Marin's communities, ensure that public transportation funds are being spent according to established criteria, and prevent multi-billion dollar industries from threatening or diminishing the fundamental rights, protections, and welfare due Marin County residents.

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