Changes Coming to Long-Distance Bus Service in Humboldt

Guest Post for CRTP by John Webb

Editor’s Note: John Webb represents Humboldt County on the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority Rail Committee. Wondering why Humboldt County has a representative on a Central Valley railroad agency? Read on!


The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA) Rail Committee is a citizen advisory committee to the decision-making SJJPA Board. The SJJPA is the public agency responsible, in partnership with Amtrak and other agencies, for the operation and management of the Amtrak Thruway Buses that connect Humboldt County with the rest of California’s bus and train network.

The SJJPA Rail Committee met on November 1, 2019 and was given a two-hour briefing by SJJPA staff on the current status of SJJPA’s work to improve public transportation in California. #1 on the agenda was planning for the post-SB742 era.

SB742 is the recent legislation that, as of Jan 1, will allow SJJPA/Amtrak to sell tickets for local travel on its buses. Prior to the passage of SB742, Amtrak was not allowed to transport passengers who did not purchase a ticket for travel on an Amtrak train. According to SJJPA Manager of Regional Initiatives Dan Leavitt, all or most Amtrak Thruway Bus routes in the state will be affected.

Fortunately for North Coast residents, SJJPA views this as an opportunity, not a problem. If done the right way, new post-SB742 policies could improve bus service to the North Coast and simultaneously make the entire Thruway Bus system more financial stable.

The plan is to begin a phased implementation, starting on January 1, 2020. This is a new universe for SJJPA, and they want to start with routes that are easier to implement and gain experience before proceeding wholesale. The decision of which route would be first to allow local travel has not yet been made. However, Leavitt referred to the need to create a statewide bus/rail network. It is good that SJJPA is thinking of its bus system as more than simply feeders for the San Joaquin trains, but rather as a part of a system of integrated bus and rail travel. SJJPA should be commended for its holistic approach to this concept.

As Humboldt County’s representative on the Committee, I did my best to push for an overhaul of SJJPA’s Route 7 (Arcata to Martinez) that would not only provide for local travel (for instance local passengers would be allowed to buy tickets ride between, say, Garberville and Willits), but would also make that long trip from Humboldt County to the Bay Area easier and more comfortable. Paul Herman, SJJPA planner for Route 7, seemed to be impressed with the idea and said he would give it serious consideration.

Here’s what I put forward to SJJPA as a post-SB742 plan for Route 7:

Bay Area-bound passengers would be able to buy a single ticket and ride the Amtrak Thruway Bus to the new SMART train San Rosa Airport station. The SMART train would then take them to SMART’s San Rafael station where they would ride an Amtrak/Thruway Route between San Rafael and the Richmond Amtrak/Bart station. This would drastically reduce the number of miles paid to Preferred Coaches, the present charter bus operator of the route. Additionally, SJJPA would not be paying Preferred long deadhead miles to pick up passengers in Martinez, since Preferred is based in Santa Rosa.

There are some challenges, of course:

  • Implementation of thru ticketing arrangements with SMART.  SMART should be receptive since it brings them riders during the more lightly patronized mid-day travel times on their trains.
  • There will need to be some careful planning so as not to put the Thruway buses in competition with other transit agencies for local passengers. For instance, our local transit provider runs buses between Eureka and Garberville, two points also served by the Thruway buses. There are other similar situations in different areas of the state.
  • There is no Amtrak agent at Richmond to sell tickets and facilitate bus/train transfers (including baggage handling). However, based on my personal look around at the Richmond BART/Amtrak station yesterday there seems to be unused/unrented commercial space available at the station. It would seem that an argument could be made to Amtrak to provide an agent since this plan would bring significantly increased ridership to the station.

Some other items presented at the meeting:

There was discussion of the changes being brought to Central Valley rail travel by High Speed Rail. Leavitt cautioned that plans are sketchy at this point. but the thinking is that the San Joaquin trains would run from the Bay Area to Merced where passengers could transfer to a High Speed train for 45-minute ride to Bakersfield. SJJPA is planning on a Thruway bus route from Merced to San Jose. Also, there was discussion of expanded ACE (a commuter rail line between Stockton and San Jose) operations through the Altamont corridor.


If you live in Humboldt County, John represents you at the SJJPA. If you have ideas for him about the local Amtrak bus route, let him know! He can be reached at

McGuire Named 2018 Responsible Transportation Champion

The Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP) has named State Senator Mike McGuire the 2018 North Coast Responsible Transportation Champion for having the vision of a Great Redwood Trail and being the leading advocate for making the Trail a reality. McGuire is the inaugural recipient of the award, which will be given annually in the future.

“We have been honored to partner with the hard-working members of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities on the Great Redwood Trail,” said Senator McGuire. “The Coalition was one of the very first organizations to support the Trail, and I am grateful to work with them on creating this remarkable project here on the North Coast.”

The North Coast Responsible Transportation Champion award is given to a leader who furthers CRTP’s mission of “promoting transportation solutions that protect and support a healthy environment, healthy people, healthy communities and a healthy economy on the North Coast.”

“Senator McGuire really made the Great Redwood Trail a central focus of his 2018 legislative agenda,” said CRTP Executive Director Colin Fiske. “He coordinated with local stakeholders to write a great bill, and then he fought hard to get it through the legislature and signed into law. Senator McGuire truly deserves this award.”

Fiske continued: “Senator McGuire’s vision of the Great Redwood Trail checks all the boxes for CRTP and the Responsible Transportation Champion award. It will transform a failed rail line which has become an environmental liability into a low-impact corridor for zero-emission transportation. It will encourage healthy, outdoor, social activity for North Coast residents and connect people with jobs and other destinations in nearby communities. And it will be a premier destination for tourists whose spending will help our local economies thrive for decades to come.”

Could This Obscure Showdown Shape Eureka’s Future?

For the past few years, there’s been an obscure, complicated, slow-moving showdown happening in the world of transportation planning. It’s a story that’s gotten little public attention, but could have huge impacts on the future of our communities. Now, that showdown is playing out in Eureka – although you almost certainly haven’t heard about it. Here’s what you need to know.

The Backstory

For decades, American transportation planning has been dominated by a singular obsession with the concept of vehicular level of service, or simply “LOS.” Under the LOS system, each intersection and street or road segment gets a letter grade, A through F. An “A” indicates the free flow of traffic, where each car is completely unaffected by any other cars on the road. An “F” indicates gridlock. The LOS system has been the driving force behind many if not most transportation planning decisions in the US for a long time. Transportation engineers and planners took the unencumbered movement of cars and trucks as their prime mandate, and when a street or intersection slipped below what they considered an acceptable grade, it would be targeted for increased capacity – usually adding lanes, but sometimes thing like traffic signals or roundabouts to improve the flow of traffic.

Over time, planners have come to realize that LOS A is not usually desirable from a public policy perspective, because it indicates that a lot of taxpayer dollars have been spent on infrastructure that’s not used by very many people. So most cities, counties and states have adopted a lower target – often LOS C. But although these lower targets recognize in theory that LOS A or B might not be the best idea, in practice engineers and planners never object to higher grades, only lower ones. Intersections and roads with grades below the target are often said to be “failing,” while those with higher grades are simply considered “acceptable.”

There have long been alternative ways to measure traffic. One of the most important and well-established is the number of vehicle miles traveled, or “VMT.” Unlike LOS, VMT measures the total amount of driving in a given area, rather than the speed of traffic. Because American engineers and planners have long been focused on congestion relief, and haven’t really cared about the actual amount of driving people do, VMT has been largely ignored. But that’s starting to change.

Why LOS Inevitably Results in More Driving (But VMT Doesn’t)

There’s a problem with using LOS as the basis for making decisions about the transportation system, and it’s a big one. That problem is called “induced demand.” In short, when you add more vehicular capacity to a road, more people will drive. This phenomenon has been recognized for nearly a century, but didn’t receive much attention from researchers or planners until toward the end of the twentieth century. Now, after a few decades of study, it’s widely accepted by experts that adding road capacity results in more driving – enough so that congestion relief projects of this sort are rarely successful.

This demand-inducing effect is no coincidence. In a seminal 2003 paper, Robert Cervero, a leading researcher on induced demand, showed that one of the main reasons more capacity results in more driving is that initially, increased capacity causes faster travel times. In other words, it’s not the capacity itself but the travel time that drivers are responding to. Because decreased congestion means faster travel, any method of increasing the LOS of a “failing” road or intersection back to an “acceptable” grade will inevitably induce more driving (and likely won’t relieve congestion in the long run). These problems, along with the completely car-centric nature of LOS, have resulted in long-running criticism of the system.

VMT has a major advantage over LOS as a management tool: VMT can be reduced by making alternative modes like walking, biking and transit more appealing, or by reducing the need for trips, but can’t be reduced by increasing the vehicular capacity of roads. For modern communities trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health by increasing physical activity and reducing toxic pollutants, and revitalize local businesses and public spaces, VMT is clearly superior to LOS.

In the battle of LOS vs. VMT, however, the first big victory for critics of LOS didn’t come until 2013, when the California state legislature passed (and the governor signed) SB 743. The new law required the state to stop using LOS as a measure of the transportation impacts of a project under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Five years later, the regulations implementing SB 743 still aren’t completely finalized. But it’s clear that the state is about to officially abandon LOS and replace it with VMT.

LOS vs. VMT: The Debate Comes to Eureka

Here’s the thing: SB 743 only applies to measuring environmental impacts under state law. It doesn’t prevent cities and counties from continuing to use LOS to make decisions about their local transportation systems. And many are continuing to do so.

The City of Eureka is currently overhauling its General Plan, a process that takes place only once every couple of decades. The new General Plan has been approved by the city’s Planning Commission and will soon be considered by the City Council. And despite a lot of improvements over the old plan, the new General Plan still relies on LOS for traffic management and largely ignores VMT. Specifically, the plan re-adopts the LOS system and establishes a target of LOS C, but contains only a tepid call to “consider the applicability” of VMT as a management tool.

CRTP has submitted comments on the new General Plan which, among other things, pointed out the problems with LOS and asked that it be replaced with VMT in the new plan. We’re continuing to ask City Council to make that change. And as a bonus, the needed edits to the plan are pretty simple. For those following along at home, here’s all that would be needed:

Goal M-2.2: Traffic Management. Address traffic operations, including congestion, intersection delays, and travel speeds, while balancing  Prioritize neighborhood livability and safety concerns in traffic management. Address traffic congestion problems without increasing vehicular capacity.

Goal M-2.3: Level of Service Standard. Strive to manage streets and highways to maintain Level of Service (LOS) C operation on all roadway segments and signalized intersections, except for along any portion of US 101, where LOS D shall be acceptable. For evaluation purposes, service levels shall be determined using methodologies and thresholds as set forth in the most up-to-date version of the Highway Capacity Manual, Institute of Transportation Engineers. For purposes of evaluating development proposals, if an intersection is operating at LOS E or F without project-generated traffic added, the project’s impact shall be considered less-than-significant if it does not cause operation to fall from LOS E to LOS F and it increases
average delay for the intersection as a whole by 5 seconds or less.

Goal M-2.4: Vehicle Miles Traveled. Consider the applicability of using transportation performance metrics such as Use Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and associated thresholds for measuring transportation system impacts consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guideline and State law, as well as for making General Plan consistency determinations and developing transportation financing programs.

Although seemingly minor, technical, even arcane, these changes could make the difference between a future Eureka with speeding traffic and empty sidewalks and one with less traffic, more active transportation, a better bus system, and thriving public streets.

Caveat: Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Transit Level of Service

To its credit, Eureka’s proposed General Plan also calls for “considering” adoption of an LOS system for bikes, pedestrians and transit – not just cars. That’s actually a good idea, for one simple reason: while the city shouldn’t want more driving, it should want more people walking, biking, and riding the bus. Using LOS to manage these systems will likely have the same demand-inducing effects as when it’s used for cars, but in this case that’s a good thing!

Times-Standard: Hundreds attend Waterfront Trail celebration

From the Times-Standard:

“Hundreds of people including city of Eureka officials and community members packed into the Wharfinger Building on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the opening of the Waterfront Trail and watch the first screening of a documentary on the trail‘s entire planning and building process.

The final phase of the Waterfront Trail was completed earlier this year and it now stretched 6.3 miles along Eureka’s picturesque waterfront on Humboldt Bay from Herrick Avenue in the south to Tydd Street in the north…”

Read the full story here.

Mad River Union Covers Living Plaza Proposals

From the Mad River Union:

Picture a Plaza free of cars on Eighth and Ninth streets, the vehicles replaced by bistro dining. A playset full of squealing children is surrounded by picnicking parents noshing on items from an array of food carts. Musicians perform from a small stage, while a chess game is played on a giant board with fireplug-sized pieces. Tourists pluck brochures from an information kiosk, their visit untrammeled by day-campers of the smoking/yelling/fighting variety. Surrounding businesses are thriving with walk-in business, thanks to the restored popularity of the Arcata Plaza. 

Idyllic, yes, but achievable, according to the McKinleyville-based Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP), representatives of which outlined their ideas Tuesday, Oct. 12 during a presentation in the Plaza View Room in Jacoby’s Storehouse….”

Read the full article here.

New York Times: Converting Parking Spaces into Parklets

Eureka has led the way locally with the development of parklets, but other communities can and should join in easily. Transitioning public space from vehicle-serving to people-serving is good for human health, community, the economy and the environment. From the New York Times:

“While each street seat typically takes up two parking spots, the benefits of serving hundreds of people a day — versus a handful of cars — have outweighed any concerns over lost parking, said Shari Gold, a senior manager in the transportation department’s public space program.”

Read the full story here.

Eureka Replacing Parking with Parklets!

The City of Eureka is making its parklet program permanent, allowing businesses to turn traffic-inducing parking spaces into community-inducing mini-parks. From the Times-Standard:

“…Despite the positive feedback he has heard from the business owners and community members the pilot program was extended for six months in January to address concerns about parklets taking over too many parking spaces.

Over those six months volunteer interns would “spy” on the parklets for four-hour periods at different times throughout the day for those businesses’ operating hours. Every 15 minutes the volunteer would do a head count of people in the business and people using the parklet as well as the number of parking spots taken up and free on that block, Holmlund said.

“Even at lunch times in all those hundreds of hours of data collection there were only two instances, two 15 minute periods, that all parking spaces were taken,” he said….”

Read the full story here.