Let's Build a Trolley - For the Sake of Nostalgia

It would be nostalgic
It would be nostalgic

This morning I sent a letter asking to know why TAM is continuing to entertain the Marin Trolley, a project covered in a Marin Voice op ed. I sent this to Dianne Steinhauser, Supervisor Kinsey, Mayor Phillips and Diane Furst who are all on the TAM executive board.

Is the Marin Trolley Likely to be Viable?

I asked why it is that TAM is continuing to invest taxpayers money in the Marin Trolleys project when even a cursory review reveals that this project would fail to achieve the stated goals:

  1. It claims to reduce traffic congestion when review of a similar trolley project in Anaheim demonstrates it will more than likely increase traffic.

  2. It claims to reduce emissions; it does so only at a prohibitive abatement cost per ton of CO2 that is not even close to being cost efficient

It's confusing to understand how $100,000 has already been spent when even a cursory review demonstrates that the project is highly unlikely to achieve these stated goals. 

One might question - is this expenditure going to a truly neutral party that is making an assessment - where it has no involvement in the outcome? (e.g. architecting housing that would be along the line, designing the trolley, managing the project, etc...).

Analyzing Trolleys

I am no transit expert, but in a short period of time using a spreadsheet was able to surmise that this project is not close to being economically effective at achieving its stated goals.

Claims to Reduce Traffic Congestion but Actually Increases It

Streetcars are typically 67 feet long - 3 car lengths - but they rarely hit 10mph and more often do 6mph and regularly come to complete stops. On a four-lane street, with streetcars going both ways, two of the lanes are going to be backed up with cars trying to get around the streetcars as they are stopped to pickup and drop people off or traveling at under 10mph.

If one reviews the Environmental Impact Study for the Anaheim streetcar  (page 26, table 3.13), a similar project, one finds:

  • the streetcar would take 287 cars off the road each day
  • the street car would reduce the capacity of the road to move cars by 1,100 cars per day.

For the cost of a trolley (estimated by the Greater Marin to be between $50m and 220m) the reduction in traffic congestion appears to be minimal. 

To date there does not appear to have been adequate consideration of the alternative of running buses along the same route:

- buses could be put in place in a matter of months, much shorter than the time required to build the trolley

- if the economics turn out to be unviable the buses could easily be re-routed or used elsewhere

- if the route is viable for a trolley why isn't the route viable for a bus, when a bus will be a fraction of the cost?

Claims to Reduce Emissions But at a Prohibitive Cost

Here using a Google Docs spreadsheet is a rough (ballpark) analysis of the abatement cost of reducing a metric ton of CO2 using trolleys in the San Rafael - San Anselmo corridor:


If reducing greenhouse gases is the primary goal then consideration should be given that there are many alternative methods to abate emissions at a cost of under $100/metric ton, such as described here:


To be cost effective: under $100 / metric ton CO2 abated (compared to other available methods). 

  • Hybrid bus (5 mpge): $39,510/ metric ton CO2 abated

  • Marin Trolley (10 mpge): $293,271/ metric ton CO2 abated

This analysis demonstrates that the trolley is not even in the ballpark for being a viable project that will reduce emissions. 

We should be fighting climate change and seeking to use our limited dollars to achieve this in the most cost efficient manner possible. No reasonable analysis could demonstrate that the trolley will achieve this.

The Trolley that Goes Backwards

The trolley would appear not to just take us back in time - summoning nostalgia - but it would  actually do the reverse of it's stated goals - it would actually increase traffic congestion and it is about as far away from being a cost effective means to reduce emissions as you could possibly get.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Linda Rames February 06, 2014 at 06:45 PM
I am sure you noticed that the Op-ed piece was partially written by one of the architects who proposed this silly scheme in the first place. My favorite part is the trolley that would run from Mill Valley to Sausalito which would have to utilize the old railroad tracks which have now been turned into a bike/pedestrian path. Good luck on getting that back from the people.
Stephen Nestel February 06, 2014 at 09:56 PM
I like the bike paths. It is a very cheap way to provide both alternative transportation solution and recreation in one piece of asphalt. The trolley is profoundly silly. I cannot believe even a single penny was spent on a "study" let alone $200k.
Pekupandropov February 08, 2014 at 04:31 PM
Good work. Politicians just hate competent analysis. They will of course "assume" that each trolley will carry 500 people and that they will run every 20 seconds. Cost effective! Just like Smart and the California medium speed rail project.


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