After long-awaited launch, North Bay’s SMART line now faces biggest test

The North Bay’s passenger rail line was forged out of a hard-won political compromise and approved by voters at the outset of a severe economic recession. Now it begins its 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.

“They're on the trains, and they're looking at the stopped traffic on 101, and they're totally sold that this is a better way to travel,” Fudge said.

Historic line

SMART's official start comes more than a century after railroads began operating on the North Coast, and 59 years after passenger service was discontinued here. Its revival has not been easy or smooth.

In 1983, Southern Pacific sought to abandon the rail line, prompting a group of Marin County officials to initiate moves to gain public ownership of the right-of-way. The coalition lobbied Doug Bosco, then the North Coast's Democratic congressman, to include funding for the acquisition in a federal highway appropriations bill.

“I think they realized it was an asset, and that once it was gone, we'd never get it back,” Bosco said recently of the Marin County officials, including the late supervisors Bob Roumiguiere and Gary Giacomini.

The transportation bill survived President Ronald Reagan's veto. It took another 13 years for the rail line to enter the public domain through a $27 million deal executed in 1996 by the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

Some advocated paving over the tracks to create a dedicated bus way or a high-occupancy lane for vehicles as alternatives to driving on Highway 101. Others pushed for passenger rail service over objections the North Bay lacked the population base and industry to support public transit on that order of scale and cost to build.

Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney who is now a co-owner of Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co., said there was growing consensus that without alternatives to driving on Highway 101, “we would just be consigned to freeway traffic the rest of our lives. Virtually everyone felt it would get worse and worse.”

Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Early on, the lofty ambitions of bringing passenger rail back to the North Bay got caught up in public debate over how to manage the region's growth, with quality-of-life issues high on the list of concerns. Voters were setting limits on sprawl, prioritizing development in denser urban areas and raising taxes to protect cherished lands. For its advocates, passenger rail fit seamlessly into the vision for “smart growth.”

But with environmental and business interests divided over how best to plan and budget for transportation upgrades, voters rejected multiple transportation packages seeking revenue for Highway 101 improvements and passenger rail, either in combination or as standalone initiatives.

“The truth of the matter is rail would have been operating a long time ago if we had put our weapons down at that time,” said Rohnert Park Mayor Jake Mackenzie, a member of SMART's board of directors.

The rail project continued to receive state backing, including $60 million earmarked in a 2000 transportation bill for restoring Northwestern Pacific's freight line. An additional $37 million was authorized for preliminary engineering and environmental studies for commuter rail.

In 2002, the state Legislature created the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District to steer the project forward. Two years later, voters in the two counties passed sales tax measures funding transportation improvements, including rail.

“I think in 2004 people began to realize that trying to continue this fight over whether we are going to do road or rail was counterproductive,” said Steve Birdlebough, a co-founder of Friends of SMART. “We had to get everyone on the same page.”

A 2006 sales tax measure to fund the rail project went down to defeat. Advocates went back to voters in 2008, and this time, the measure passed.

Recent challenges

Approval of Measure Q authorizing SMART marked a pivotal moment after decades of planning and negotiation over a passenger rail system for the North Bay. But the celebration was short-lived.

The quarter-cent sales tax supporting the system took effect around the same time the worst recession since the Great Depression staggered the North Bay's and the nation's economy.

Faced with lower-than-expected revenues, SMART's board voted to downscale the initial project, postpone the start of passenger service and curtail other infrastructure promised to voters.

Work along the Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks began in 2012 after SMART's directors approved a $103 million contract for the rail project's first phase. Bringing the rail line up to modern standards has not been easy, involving complex planning and major expenditures, along with a myriad of permitting challenges.

“We had to take the old railroad that hadn't been used in a long time, and even when it had, saw somewhat deferred-type maintenance,” said Bill Gamlen, SMART's chief engineer. He said Southern Pacific, the track's former owner, “did what they had to do to keep the freight trains rumbling down the track. We had to take that and bring it up to current passenger standards to run at 79-mph in many locations.”

Work on the first phase included rebuilding the entire rail line, installing a new signal system, overhauling 63 at-grade crossings and rehabilitating or replacing 27 bridges. The historic Haystack Bridge over the Petaluma River was replaced with a drawbridge that was dismantled in Galveston, Texas, trucked cross-country and re-assembled in California.

Gamlen, who arrived at SMART in 2009 from the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), noted the work has amounted to one of the largest public works projects in North Bay history.

“This is a heavy lift,” Gamlen said.

According to rail agency officials, SMART will be the first rail line system in the nation to start service with Positive Train Control, a fiber-optic technology designed to prevent train car derailments and maintain proper speeds and control. SMART has spent $50 million on the technology, which the federal government is demanding of all railroads.

Few predicted it would take this long for work on the rail line, trains and operating systems to be completed so that paying customers could board trains. Even as the recession was making clearer some of the steep challenges facing the project, SMART officials were still promising passenger service would start in 2014, and that the entire system from Larkspur to Cloverdale would be up and running by 2018.

Those promises proved overly optimistic. Last year, officials projected they would start service by the end of the year, a date that also came and went after the agency decided to retrofit all 14 of their new engines after mechanical problems arose with similar cars in Canada.

A new tentative start date this year, by late spring, was missed, a delay rail officials attributed partly to the federal approval process for its high-tech safety systems. Instead, SMART scheduled a series of free public preview rides throughout the summer.

“When you deal with public safety, when you deal with public life, it's our job to make sure it is safe,” Mansourian said of the various hurdles and mileposts reached in the system's development. “Frankly, we don't see that as a delay, we see that as a sign of how much public safety matters to us as opposed to just keeping an arbitrary date for political reasons.”

Still, only seven miles of the accompanying bike and pedestrian trail have been completed, and while the extension of SMART south to Larkspur, near the ferry terminal, is set to occur in 2019, no public timeline exists for start of service to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale, shortcomings that continue to dog the system.

The Sonoma County Grand Jury, in a 2014 report, found SMART directors failed to inform voters about risks to its tax revenue projections at the outset of the economic recession.

Mike Arnold, the Novato economist and SMART critic, said the rail agency's funding problems predated the recession. He said SMART's own consultants informed directors in 2005 that a quarter-cent sales tax would not raise enough money to fund construction and train operations for a 70-mile rail line. But polls suggested voters would not support the higher tax amount.

“They did not raise enough money to finance the train. It's not a function of the recession,” Arnold said. “They have been lying about that for years.”

SMART officials say they've been forthcoming about the financial pressures facing the system and the need to pursue additional taxpayer dollars for its development.

SMART appears to have enough money to ride out uncertainties in the near-term. The rail agency's overall budget of $100 million for this fiscal year includes $37 million in capital costs, $14 million in debt service and $18 million in salaries and benefits. The agency has operating reserves of $17 million, an amount equal to roughly 35 percent of the operations and administration budget, including debt service. It also has $10 million in capital reserves.

The agency forecasts an operating deficit of $2.9 million, due in part to delay in the start of passenger service and the loss of potential fare revenue. Officials say the deficit should be covered once full fare service starts in early September and money from the state's recently enacted increases in transportation taxes and fees kick in.

Enticing riders

Advocates predict SMART will catch on. Passengers can work or sightsee, just as their predecessors did generations ago. Only with SMART, the onboard amenities include Wi-Fi for surfing the Internet and sending email, space to store bicycles, and food and beverage service, including locally-sourced beer and wine.

During one of SMART's preview rides this summer, passengers aboard one of the trains included a group of mothers with young children who were going from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, where they hopped off and walked to Jonny Donut on Fourth Street for a mid-morning treat. The women said they found the experience much more enjoyable than braving highway traffic with a car full of kids.

“This is great because it's tying all these communities together,” Nick Graveson, a retired PG&E worker who lives in Petaluma, said as the world whizzed past the train window.

SMART forecasts a daily weekday ridership of 3,000, a number that has fluctuated over the years. For many potential riders, the decision will come down to cost and convenience.

SMART is charging a $3.50 base fare and $2 for each zone line crossed. Discounts will offer lower fares for youth, seniors, veterans, college students and disabled riders, as well as commuters who get their tickets in bulk through employers. Monthly passes sell for $200.

David Pearson, who develops mobile apps for Wells Fargo, said riding the trains should shorten his commute to San Francisco by about a half-hour. That's despite Pearson having to transfer to a Golden Gate Transit bus in San Rafael to complete the journey. Pearson also said he's looking forward to taking his bike on the trains and riding the final leg into the city.

“I've been very excited to see this happen,” Pearson said. “I've been waiting for it since they first started talking about it 15 years ago.”

Trackside development

Residential and commercial development around train stations is viewed as a critical component of the SMART's success, but those projects have yet to get off the drawing board in Sonoma County.

Santa Rosa has approved two apartment complexes totaling 275 units three blocks north of the city's Railroad Square station. Both have been touted as attractive living quarters for North Bay rail commuters.

An even more centrally site owned by SMART is being sold to a developer with plans for an $85 million commercial and residential complex with 268 units of needed housing. If approved by the city, SMART will receive a $5.75 million cash infusion for the 5.4 acres, plus hundreds of potential train passengers.

Mayor Chris Coursey, a former SMART spokesman, sees the areas around the city's two stations as economic drivers for the city.

“Railroads were key to the development of Santa Rosa as the center of commerce for the North Bay at the beginning of the last century,” Coursey said. “Bringing passenger rail back will certainly contribute to a new energy in Santa Rosa for the future.”

In Petaluma, applications have been submitted for two apartment complexes totaling 326 units near the downtown station, and for a subdivision with a mix of single-family detached and condominium homes totaling 199 units near the Corona Station. But under the best case scenario, completion of those projects is still years away. And in Rohnert Park plans for a new downtown with a transit hub are stalled after a Southern California developer announced it is seeking to unload the former 30-acre State Farm site, the critical lynchpin of the downtown concept.

“I think it's fair to say we're not as far along as we would like to have been achieving some of the developments and the provisions for housing around the railroad's platforms,” said Mackenzie, the city's mayor.

Market conditions have played a role for the lack of development. But some observers point to barriers getting projects around train stations approved, such as height restrictions on buildings or the challenges of working with various entities for approvals.

“We need to figure out a way as a community to accelerate our building of housing in and around SMART stations, and building of commercial in and around SMART stations, if we really want to have a working rail line that gives back the way it was sold to the community,” said Robin Stephani, a vice president at Santa Rosa-based Wright Contracting and board member of Urban Community Partnership, a Sonoma County nonprofit that advocates for infill development.

Environmental benefits

Climate experts say transit-oriented-development is key to SMART delivering on its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. SMART estimated in 2008 the train service would reduce such emissions by 124,000 pounds per day, which translates into 23,000 tons annually. That's roughly less than one percent of Sonoma County's annual greenhouse gas emissions of between 3 and 4 million tons a year.

Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, said it remains to be seen whether the major public investment in SMART is worth it in terms of reducing harmful gas emissions.

“It's not a slam dunk, but this community has made a commitment to this. We should get behind it to make it work,” Hancock said.

Other challenges

Critics say SMART is not living up to its promised mandate to voters in several key areas, including with the schedule trains are operating on. The schedule includes some 90-minute gaps during hours of peak service. The 2008 sales tax measure promised passenger service would be delivered at 30-minute intervals during “rush hours.” A 2014 strategic plan for the system also stated that trains would be “spread across the morning and evening commute hours with roughly 30-minute headways,” and that trains would travel approximately 30 minutes apart.

SMART now says it lacks the equipment and personnel to uniformly offer service on a 30-minute timetable during peak hours.

A bicycle and pedestrian path that was central to the rail vision and a key selling point to voters also has fallen well short of expectations to this point, with only seven miles of the path currently completed. SMART has projected the path will generate between 7,000 and 10,000 daily bicycle trips.

“Once it's finally up and running, we're hoping there will be more opportunity and attention paid to completing the pathway,” said Alisha O'Loughlin, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “We do recognize there was a funding shortfall and there's only so much they can do with the funds they have.”

Parking for access to the trains is another concern. SMART has 268 parking spaces at three stations: in Rohnert Park, and in Novato near Hamilton Parkway and at Atherton Avenue/San Marin Drive. The rail agency is planning an additional 50 parking spaces each at the downtown Petaluma station and the Airport Boulevard station north of Santa Rosa.

For riders, the alternatives are on-street parking, connecting bus service or rideshare services.

Future outlook

SMART's advocates say such challenges are to be expected with the launch of any major public transit service.

“People said the same thing about BART when BART started - oh, it's never going to work, no one is going to ride it. And yet the Bay Area wouldn't work without BART today,” said Susan Klassen, Sonoma County's transportation and public works director.

Klassen said major public transit systems are about planning for the long-term, “and knowing that it's the right thing to do. Which is the way I feel about SMART. It's the right thing to do.”

Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, predicted SMART will be such a success that talk in the future will be about expanding passenger service, possibly beyond the north-south 101 corridor. She cited Highway 37 for connections east and west as one possibility.

Smith also said it will take continued public investment in SMART to keep it a going concern. The Measure Q sales tax expires in 2029.

“The reality for SMART is that they will have to go back to voters to extend the current tax so that they can continue operating, just as other systems everywhere in the country do,” Smith said.

At Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, the return of passenger trains is being celebrated as history coming back around the bend.

“We feel it's going to be huge. Huge!” said Myrna Lozada, president of the Railroad Square Association. “We're not quite sure what to expect, which adds to the excitement.”

Staff writers Guy Kovner, Kevin McCallum and Paul Payne contributed reporting.

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