Travel Blog

3/24/17 California's Pacific Surfliner should get a faster and be on time more often.

The California Transportation Commission (CTC) has allocated nearly $50 million to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to double-track the San Diego County segment of the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) passenger-rail corridor.  This is the corridor that hosts the Pacific Surfliner.  We believe that the Surfliner route should be extended to San Jose.  Presently tourist take the rarely on-time and more expensive Amtrak Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Oakland at an inconvenient time. California has stepped up with funding but Congress continues to starve Amtrak.

The funds also will pay for bridge replacement and signal improvements along the segment, according to a California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) news release.  All of these improvements should avoid the conflicts with freight trains that cause so many delays.

The work is part of the North Coast Corridor Project, a series of Interstate 5 "improvements" in San Diego County that are being carried out by Caltrans' 11th district and SANDAG.  "Improvements" usually mean adding lanes to the freeway which, in the long run, will only lead to added congestion and more traffic.

 3/8/17 If only America had the vision demonstrated by Berlin.

Read more about Belin's Bicycle Superhighway.

3/2/17          Has your city considered using Transit Boarding Islands?

When different modes of transportation intersect, there can be tradeoffs for either mode. In the case of bikes and buses, however, there are solutions that avoid compromise and are advantageous to all users. Enter the transit boarding island. Read more at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition site:

12/2/16     LA to Sonoma and Marin Counties without a car

Los Angeles is finally inching closer to connecting its International Airport to its Metro Line with a "people mover" similar to the one connecting BART and Amtrak to the Oakland Airport. They will accommodate bicycles too.   Once SMART is up and running, and the people mover is completed, LA's  environmentally minded travelers will be able to leave their car at home, take the metro and people mover to the airport, fly to San Francisco or Oakland.  From San Francisco or Oakland they can take BART to the Larkspur ferry which connects with SMART.

Read more here.

9/25/16      Lessons from TrainPac

Yesterday I attended the the joint annual conference of TrainPac and the National Association of Railroad Passengers called Steel Wheels.  This is held at the California State Railroad History Museum in Old Town Sacramento.  Because Ecoring advocates for additional passenger rail, we were interested to hear what the scheduled speakers had to say about rail access to the North Bay, new rail initiatives and improved connectivity with other low-carbon modes of travel.  It was an impressive line-up of speakers:

Dan Leavitt, the Manager of Regional Initiatives for the San Joaquin Join Powers Authority spoke on the new initiatives for the Altamonte Corridor Express (ACE) and Amtrak California’s San Joaquin train.  ACE is planning to extend from Stockton to Merced and from San Jose Diridon Station to Gilroy.  The San Joaquin is considering extending north to Sacramento.  This will require new trains and additional cars and a solid source of funding.

Jeff Morales, the CEO of California High Speed Rail Authority explained the ongoing construction projects already initiated by the Authority.  These included river crossings and grade (road) crossings in the San Joaquin valley and electrification projects on the San Francisco peninsula.  He had photos to prove it!  He also had some interesting graphics showing that for long-distance travel that rail is a far more productive way to travel that by air or auto.  You cannot work while driving and much of the time required for air travel is spent in line or waiting in a plane on the ground with no internet connection.

David Kutrosky, the Managing Director of Amtrak Capitol Corridor recounted the planning for extending this excellent commuter train north of Sacramento and South of San Jose.  Again, new equipment is required.  I rode the Capitol Corridor from the Suisun-Fairfield Station to Sacramento and it was precisely on time.

Sacramento Station Underpass

Eric Smith, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief Rout Manager, spoke about experiments with food service his two lines.  He has tried a novel approach:  Instead of listening to the “cubicles” in Washington, he has initiated discussions with food service personnel and arranged trips with them to learn from them.  It has yielded immediate results with more popular food choices and higher revenues especially for average travelers.   Congress has mandated that Amtrak break even on food service and have made it illegal to subsidize food service.   Although Mr. Smith did not say so, I can verify that it has resulted in a noticeable degradation in food service on some of Amtrak’s long distance lines.

Mr. Smith has also been experimenting with providing Business Class seating sections with cocktails and other amenities at a higher price similar to their airlines.  This has boosted revenues and made Amtrak more business friendly.  Tourists can, of course, take advantage of this too.   Amtrak’s long distance lines have dead zones for internet reception and Mr. Smith is trying to remedy this.

The present majority in Congress seems to believe that, among all the various forms of transportation, only rail should survive without subsidy.  The most dangerous, polluting and destructive form of transport, the automobile, gets the largest subsidy.  Air and sea transportation are also heavily subsidized.  Go figure. business class service on his routes.

Andrew Selden of the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers presented a highly controversial talk advocating privatization and providing models from Europe and the United States.  He seemed to ignore the history of private railroads in United States history.  Rail corporations, thanks to their private ownership and monopoly status, were hotbeds of corruption and stock fraud.  The one model I did find attractive was government ownership of the rail infrastructure which requires long-term maintenance, coupled with franchises granted to private carriers on a competitive basis.  This is similar to the way garbage halling or campground services are already run.  Companies that fail to meet performance standards are out.

Unfortunately, it is just backwards in the U.S.  Private railroads own the tracks and Amtrak leases from them and must deal with competing periodic freight trains.  This is the main reason Amtrak has such a poor on-time record.

The conference started 15 minutes late due to Amtrak.  TrailPac and NARP planned the conference to permit participants to take Capitol Corridor from the Bay Area but Amtrak changed their Saturday schedule after the conference planning was locked in.  I was forced to drive from the Sonoma Coast to Suisun-Fairfield Station in order to catch the train because there is as yet no rail alternative.   Once Sonoma and Marin’s SMART train begins operation in late December we will be one step closer but still not connected by rail to the Capitol Corridor.   There is an ongoing public process discussing what to do with the Highway 37 corridor.  Sea level increases and subsidence is threatening the highway and the state lacks the money to fix it.  EcoRing has advocated the extention of SMART to the Solano-Sonoma County line and the extention of the Capitol Corridor from Suisun-Fairfield to meet SMART.  Capitol Corridor has already run charter trains as far as the Sonoma Raceway.  Raising and refurbishing the rails would cost far less than raising the highway and would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change.  Wouldn’t it be better for us all to avoid the long, dangerous drive on I-80 to Sacamento or the East Bay?

While in Old Town Sacramento, I took the opportunity to have dinner at the Delta King, an historic paddle-wheel steamer, tied up on the Sacramento River across for the historic Sacramento depot.  From the Queen I watched the fully-loaded tourist trains pull from the station as smoke billowed from the 19th century engine.  The food was good (fish and chips in my case) and the service excellent.   

One of the owners of the Delta King has, together with two other men, purchased the Jenner Inn.  They held an open house on September 14 which I attended.   They have remodeled the Inn and its cottages and are nearly ready for 

7/20/16 Travel Lessons from Colorado and Montana

I just returned  from a tourism fact-finding trip to Colorado and Montana.  I learned a great deal about what Colorado and Montana have done to encourage tourism, what they have done well and what they need to work on.   I garnered a few ideas for tourism that we can implement here in the North Bay.

I traveled three different airlines, Delta, Southwest and Alaska.  It confirmed the usual received wisdom:  air travel is a nightmare.  It also revealed the extent of natural gas fracking, oil drilling and clear cutting in these two states and Oregon as well, all of which contribute to climate change.  

I first landed in Denver, a sprawl developers dream.  I have never seen a city quite so diffuse, thinly spread over the prairie.   The views of the Rocky Mountains was, however, spectacular.  I guess that it is difficult to develop the tops of 14,000 foot peaks.   

The airport was impressive and sprawling too.  The architecture  was impressive and the colorful art on display celebrated Denver’s history.


The airport itself had its own (expensive) hotel but local zoning seems to have kept most of the other hotels at bay requiring long shuttle connections.

Denver did offer one traveling amenities of note: a safe, on-time commuter/tourist light rail between the airport and the Amtrak rail depot.  SMART take note:  Each car contained luggage racks for tourists.

The Colorado Department of Transportation publishes a bicycle map for the whole state indicating scenic bike routes with wide road shoulders.  But I saw very few paved multi-use trails.    Colorado does cater to mountain bikers with many designated trails.  Indeed, some small towns seem to be built around mountain biking.

Denver has refurbished the grand historic Union Pacific Depot with upscale restaurants, pubs and comfortable couches and chairs plus tables with wifi.  This was a city project, not Amtrak although Amtrak has a baggage claim and ticket office there. 

The city also built a new swirling depot/platform for both the light rail system and Amtrak.


The new depot featured a unique series of safety displays for young children called “Dumb Ways to Die”.  I think that SMART should look into this program.


Although the light rail delivered us spot on time, the Amtrak Zephyr was more like a breeze blowing in the wrong direction.  It was only 5 hours late killing our B&B reservation in Glenwood Springs.  Apparently the first engine failed before clearing the Chicago Station.  (Silly me, I thought maintenance was Amtrak’s responsibility). 

Then the tracks were flooded in Nebraska by flash floods.  I guess they have no records of previous floods to tell them how high to build the rails.  

Finally, they had a heart attack victim that had to be transferred to an ambulance which caused an additional delay.  (I forgive this one.  The transfer was quick and efficient.)   The route through the gorges between Denver and Glenwood Springs was awe-inspiring.  But then, what did Amtrak have to do with that? The route was selected by Union Pacific when building the transcontinental railroad.

I am told that the segment from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction is also beautiful, but I cannot verify this because we traversed most of it after dark, exactly what we wanted to avoid by taking the route east to west.  My fault.  I trusted the Amtrak time table.  

Congress is allowing an important national transportation asset to wither.  And making us more car-dependent.  Amtrak's long distance routes are a stepchild to the Northeast corridor trains which usually run half empty.  Amtrak needs more than one train per day and the entire line needs to be double tracked to avoid conflicts with freight trains which use the same tracks and have priority!  To add insult to injury, they are cutting back food service on some long-distance lines.   Although we had food service in a dining car, a cannot recommend the fair-to-poor “cuisine” or the curt and unfriendly service.  There was no car rental at the Grand Junction station at the late hour we arrived so we had to hire a taxi to take us to the airport which did have a car rental.  We collapsed in a local hotel after a long and trying day.

                                        The Upper Colorado River

The next day we headed back to Glenwood Springs along the Colorado River, then headed south to Basalt to visit the Rocky Mountain Institute Headquarters.  This is a “think and do tank” that works on energy efficiency and removing economic barriers to low-carbon technologies.  It is headed by Amory Lovins, a crack engineers who has been solving energy problems for large corporations and the military for years.

The Institute building was a Platinum LEEDs certified building.  The headquarters was also the start of a multi-use trail along the creek.  The small town of basalt had a history trail, something EcoRing has been advocating for Sonoma and Marin Counties along the historic North Pacific Coast Railroad.  Buildings like restaurants and B&Bs had interpretive signs in front of the buildings.


We visited Amory Lovins energy-neutral home in Snow Mass.  This is a home that does not require heating even though it sits a over 8,000 feet elevation!  Our Inns and B&Bs should be built for energy efficiency.


We quickly drove through Aspen which has let development get out of hand.  It is becoming just another large city, albeit with skiing in the winter.

Throughout the state we encountered nice campgrounds most with amazing views and near trailheads.  Of particular grandeur was the Maroon Bells,  a national park with amazing scenery.

                                             Maroon Bells National Park

Colorado sport a number of very long trails:  The American Discovery Trail, the Colorado Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.  Sonoma and Marin Counties could counter with a Russian River Trail, a Petaluma River Trail and the North Pacific Coast Railroad Heritage Trail.

                                 The Colorado Trail

We stayed the night at the Mt. Elbert Lodge, a cosy, refurbished pack station, originally build in the 1800's, near Twin Lakes and Independence Pass.  Nearby Mt. Elbert is only 14,433 feet high.  Independence Pass is the gateway to the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness and the Mount Massive Wilderness.  This was a hikers paradise and a reminder of the importance of wilderness to tourism.  We spent the next day hiking the Colorado Trail and trails on Independence Pass

                                                   Mt. Elbert Lodge

                                     The view at Independence Pass

After a second night at Mt. Elbrert Lodge we moved on to Gunnison crossing the Continental Divide once again.  We stayed at the home of friends in Gunnison with amazing views of meadows and mountains.  In the morning we visited Crested Butte a small mining town and home to the Wildflower Festival and true to its name, wildflowers were everywhere.  Why doesn’t the Sonoma and Marin Coast have such a festival?


The nearby ghost town of Gothic hosts the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory where they study the effects of climate change on the native wildflowers.  University students and volunteers work side by side with well know scientists such as  Dr. John Holdren, Science Advisor to Barack Obama, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, Dr. Michael Soule, founder of Conservation Biology and Dr. Theo Colburn, author of Our Stolen Future.

We were lucky enough to attend a cheerful lecture in Crested Butte titled “Vanishing Wildlife and the Sixth Mass extinction” by Mexican scientist Gerardo Cebrellos, a population biologist who is coauthor of the book The annihilation of nature: human extinction of birds and mammals, with Anne H. Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich.  It was both enlightening and terrifying and well attended.  Why not a lecture series aimed at entertaining and educating tourists in Sonoma and Marin?

We spent a second night in Gunnison and visited the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.  It is a canyon nearly as deep as the Grand Cayon and a geologists dream site featuring rocks all the way back to the Precambrian before animals and plants.


                                        Black Canyon of the Gunnison

After viewing the canyon we drove back to Gunnison for dinner at Garlic Mike’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant on the edge of the Gunnison River.  Not only was there outdoor and indoor dining (we chose outdoor) and great food, but the restaurant sponsored a day raft trip down the River ending at the restaurant with a full dinner.  This is a great idea for some of EcoRing’s Partners to institute!


                                  Garlic Mikes on the Gunnison River

Before driving back to Denver we hiked to the world’s largest aspen grove near Kebler Pass west of Crested Butte.  On the way back to Denver we stopped at a ranger station  Wilkerson Pass and was treated to singing rangers.


Why don’t our visitor centers have local music?

Another stop and we where viewing petrified redwoods at Florissant Fossil Beds.  55 million years ago these giant redwoods (actually precursors to the Sierra Sequoias) along with 1,700 species of insects and plants were covered with volcanic mud and ash from a nearby volcano.  Of course, Sonoma and Marin have the living redwoods and we have our own Petrified Forest on the eastern edge of Sonoma County.


On the plane ride from Denver to Butte Montanna we saw lots of crop circles.  No, not the ones created by gnomes in corn fields, but the thirsty circular fields irrigated by sprinkler booms pivoting from a well at the center sucking up the remaining ground water in overtaxed aquafiers.


We spent most of the next week enjoying what is left of the true west staying with relatives in Anaconda and at Rock Creek, a tributary to the Clark Fork of the Columbia.  It was tough waking each morning to a cup of tea on the deck overlooking Rock Creek (In California we would call this a river) then enjoying breakfast trout caught the night before.

Then an arduous day in the hammock.

Or perhaps enjoying a famous string quartet in a local church.

Flying back to San Francisco via Portland was a bit of a trail after all that relaxation.  It was a bouncy flight which detoured to avoid weather.  It flew over miles of clear cut forests.  The devastation was akin to war destruction.  We nearly missed our plane out of Portland but by running we made it.

The trip reminded us that the U.S. is a third world country when it comes to transportation infrastructure.  We have a lot of work to do.  But nothing in Colorado or Montana can beat the beauty and diversity of Sonoma and Marin:  Rugged mountains, redwood-fir forests, flields wildflowers, miles of coastline with tide pools and white-sand beaches, diverse organic agriculture, colorful history and world class music venues.  I'm glad to be home!


EcoRing's Executive Director walked with the Friends of the Alto Tunnel contingent in the Twin Cities 4th of July Parade sponsored by Larkspur and Corte Madera to support the reopening of the Alto Tunnel.  

The Alto Tunnel is one of six tunnels on the historic railgrade of the North Pacific Coast Railway.  This railroad, built in the 1870's, was responsible for the birth of all of the cities and villages of western Marin and Sonoma Counties.  It originated the forest, dairy, wine, oyster and tourism industries in the North Bay.  

EcoRing is advocating for a trail on the historic narrow-gage steam railroad right-of-way from Sausalito to Cazadero (94 miles) where possible and consistent with property rights.  We call it the Heritage Trail.  Opening the Alto Tunnel for bicycle and pedestrian traffic would connect two long sections of the railgrade already converted to trail.  This section is also part of the North-South Greenway which EcoRing supports.

As the tunnel "float" rolled along the parade route bicycles rode and pedestrians walked throughout the tunnel.  Dogs on leash traversed the tunnel.  Even a unicyclist!  And many young children from among the parade watchers were encouraged to run through the tunnel.  People from all walks of life along the parade route cheered, clapped and flashes a thumbs up sign indicating their support for opening the tunnel.


The newest section of the California Coastal Trail in Sonoma County called the Coastal Prairie Trail is open.  It's appropriate for walking, wheelchairs and biking from Bodega Dunes the Bodega Bay Bell Tower to the small community of Salmon Creek via the Bodega Dunes Campground. 


The EcoRing Farmers' Market has reopened again every Thursday in Guerneville for the summer and fall.  We have been doing a brisk business at our new and better location at 4th and Church near the Coffee Bazaar.  You will find a good selection of fruits, vegetables and fish as well as crafts, prepared food and organic fruit drinks.  We are continuing to add new vendors and now have room to grow.  Every other Thursday there is a free outdoor music event in Guerneville nearby.  Come join us!


The City of Larkspur held opening ceremonies for a new multi-use bridge across Sir Francis Drake Blvd. connecting the Larkspur Landing SMART station to the Larkspur Ferry.  The bridge is part of the North-South Greenway being constructed in Marin County. 


Our Executive Director toured the new SMART maintenance facilities and, along with other Friends of SMART member, and enjoyed a preview ride on the train.  He reports the ride is incredibly smooth, quiet and comfortable and  that there is a snack bar on board and a restroom.  Plenty of room for bicycles too!  The photo below is the view looking over the shoulder of the train's operator.


The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train is set to open this December and weekend schedules will be adjusted to serve tourists.  Rick Coates, Executive Director of EcoRing, has served as EcoRing’s representative on the Board of Friends of SMART for over 5 years always encouraging the organization to push for tourist services on SMART.  Friends of SMART has met regularly with SMART’s General Manager, Farhad Mansourian.  Some of the services we pushed for were accommodations for bicycles onboard and at stations, local wines served onboard after work hours and on weekends and stops at wineries adjacent to the rails.  

We also encouraged SMART to connect the multi-use pathway directly to existing bike trails such as the Joe Redota Trail in Sonoma County and the West Marin Trail and North-South Greenway in Marin County.  We are also pushing for a commuter rail connection to Amtrak/Capitol Corridor at Fairfied-Suisun (using SMART-owned rails along the Highway 37 corridor) after SMART reaches Larkspur Ferry Terminal and Cloverdale.  Bay Area concierges told us that the most common question that they get from tourists is “How do I get the wine train to Sonoma?”  Finally they will have an answer!

We are pushing Sonoma County Transportation Department for a shuttle connecting the Railroad Square SMART station to Sebastopol, Freestone, Occidental, Monte Rio, Guerneville, the Santa Rosa Airport and the Airport Blvd. SMART station.   Letters to our Supervisor from our Partners requesting such a shuttle would be helpful.


Bay Area Green Tours (BAGT) and EcoRing are proud to announce their new collaboration.   BAGT will be leading and marketing educational and corporate group tours in the north bay utilizing green tourist-serving business who are EcoRing Partners.   In addition EcoRing will provide additional tour planning to BAGT and recommending potential routes, activities and low-carbon transportation vendors.

BAGT has agreed to include EcoRing tours and events on their website, share marketing, planning and provide additional marketing expertise and intern time.   BAGT will also help publicize EcoRing Rail and Trail Initiaves  We look forward to a productive partnership!



There is a train coming to the North Bay!  Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is building a commuter/tourist rail line from Larkspur Ferry Terminal on the San Francisco Bay to Cloverdale on the northern edge of Sonoma County, a total of 70 miles.  The project includes a bike path the entire 70 miles (see SMART Pathway below).

EcoRing serves on the Board of Friends of SMART, the citizens group that placed the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project on the ballot, lobbied for its ultimate passage and has continued to defend the project against ill-informed opponents. The SMART train is still on schedule, to begin service on its Initial Operation Segment late in 2016. It is on sound financial footing in spite of the deepest recession in recent years.

Some have worried that there will be insufficient ridership. There is good reason to expect the opposite.  In June of 2014 in St Paul, Minnesota, Metro Transit opened its new Green Line, a light rail linking downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis. In September 1,063,512 passengers road the Green LIne boosting the year-to-date total to 3,477,945.  That’s an average weekday ridership of 37,178, 35% higher than the ridership projection for 2015!  There is a similar pent-up demand for rail transit in the North Bay.

The SMART tracks from Airport Blvd. near the Sonoma County Airport to Petaluma have already been refurbished with new rails and ballast and concrete ties.  Signals have been upgraded and new safety communications lines installed.  26.5 miles of new track, crossings, bridges and signal improvements are complete. 

Construction has started on rail lines between Petaluma and downtown San Rafael including the Petaluma Haystack Bridge. Five major construction contracts are injecting more than $250 million into the economy, to deliver the most significant infrastructure improvement project in the North Bay in generations.  Construction of the Operations and Maintenance Facility at Airport Blvd. are under way.  

Key construction milestones over the next year include remaining track, crossing and bridge construction,  strengthening of the Puerto Suello Tunnel in San Rafael, replacement of the Haystack Bridge over the Petaluma River, construction of the Operations & Maintenance Facility, completion of systems & signal work, and station platforms & finishes.

SMART’s first two-car train set is currently being manufactured and undergoing a series of rigorous tests prior to final assembly in Illinois, the site for all SMART train assembly.  Initial on-track testing will take place at a renowned testing facility in Colorado prior to extensive testing on the new SMART tracks during 2015. Testing will include full implementation of the new state-of-the-art in train safety systems – Positive Train Control.

Initial Preliminary designs for the SMART Stations (platforms) have been circulated to the various cities for suggestions and review.   Stations are not to be confused, however, with depots which several cities have already constructed.  Several interesting historic depots, remnants of the operation of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, still exist and have been refurbished.  These include depots in San Rafael, Petaluma and Santa Rosa.  New depots have been built in Cloverdale, Windsor and Cotati.

SMART Pathway

The SMART Path is a 70 mile multi-use trail from Larkspur Ferry Terminal to Cloverdale on the northern edge of Sonoma County roughly following the SMART rail route.   It is a joint project with Sonoma and Marin Counties, SMART, CalTrans and several cities in Sonoma and Marin Counties.  Several segments of the trail have already been completed including one through the CalPark tunnel connecting Larkspur Landing to Anderson Drive in San Rafael.  In partnership with the City of Santa Rosa, a new Pathway segment is open between 8th St. and College Ave.  Next year SMART has scheduled construction of seven more segments of the Pathway.

EcoRing P.O. Box 2002, Guerneville, CA 95446 (707) 632-6070 / (707) 865-2575  email us   EcoRing 2014 ©

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