After long-awaited launch, North Bay’s SMART line now faces biggest test
A new passenger train system for Sonoma and Marin counties begins its first full week of operation today, marking the long-awaited launch - nearly four years behind its original schedule - of a $600 million taxpayer-funded transit option designed to transform travel north of the Golden Gate.
Already one of the largest public works projects of the North Bay in decades, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system was built on reconstructed tracks first used more than a century ago - and on the premise that thousands of weekday commuters, along with tourists and weekend riders, will prefer to hop aboard diesel-powered trains rather than crowd into traffic on Highway 101.
The SMART system begins accepting its first fully paid riders Sept. 5. Discounted rides began Saturday after Friday's grand opening, including speeches and inaugural free trips aboard the green and gray train, the first passenger cars to serve the North Bay after a nearly 60-year absence.
“People never thought we'd be able to pull it off,” said Mike Cale, a former Sonoma County supervisor who coined the SMART name and was an early advocate of the rail project. “They thought it was a waste of energy and time, and that money would be better spent simply focusing on (Highway) 101 problems, which in my mind was a pretty narrow vision and approach to solving a much larger problem.”
SMART's advocates bill it as a potential game-changer for the North Bay, touting a vision of a new rail system that frees more commuters from their cars, eases highway congestion, reduces vehicle emissions and lays the groundwork for future residential and commercial development oriented more toward walking or riding a bike.
With 10 stops along an initial 43-mile line from northern Santa Rosa to San Rafael, SMART was forged from a hard-won political consensus between voters in the two counties, where previous efforts to revive rail service had failed.
The development has been fraught with obstacles and delays. Steep financial shortfalls tied mostly to a recession-era drop in the voter-approved sales tax that supports the system forced officials to postpone buildout of the full 70-mile line - from Larkspur to Cloverdale - and the accompanying bike path promised at the ballot box in 2008.
Those shortcomings continue to provide fodder for the system's critics, who question SMART's sustainability and the expenditure of taxpayer dollars for a system where the extent of rider demand remains largely a projection at this point.
“They have spent, according to their financial audit reports, over $600 million on this train and they haven't taken a single (paying) passenger,” said Mike Arnold, a Novato economist who backed an unsuccessful effort to repeal SMART's sales tax in 2012. “The issue with the train is that it costs a lot of money and it doesn't generate many benefits because it doesn't take many riders. It's been the No. 1 issue from the get-go.”
But for supporters, including transportation planners, environmentalists, employers and untold commuters, the start of service is a triumphant moment - the rare dawn of a new American rail system they hope will revamp long-established travel, commerce and even residential patterns in the largely suburban North Bay.
“We think as we prove to the public that we are dependable, that we are reliable, and (for) those whose origin and destination and schedule matches ours - this is an option they've never ever had before,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager since 2011. “They were captured on the Highway 101 parking lot and now they have an option. We are very pleased we are giving them that option.”
Major unknowns could cloud that vision, including whether SMART's planners have found the right formula for schedules and fares - perhaps the two most important calculations determining the venture's success.
The schedule calls for 34 trips on weekdays, with 30-minute intervals across most of the peak hours, though some gaps of an hour or more still exist. The average overall fare is $5.25 with discounts factored in. Without discounts, the average fare is $7.50, with a one-way trip from Santa Rosa to San Rafael going for $9.50, and a roundtrip $19.
Hal Norman is one of the commuters already sold on SMART. The Santa Rosa tech worker said he is looking forward to his “dreaded” daily trip to Novato being a “lot less stressful and a lot more productive” aboard the trains, which he said he and his wife also plan to use for weekend getaways.
Debora Fudge, Windsor's mayor and chairwoman of SMART's board of directors, predicted SMART will appeal to many harried commuters.