North Bay's SMART train turns 1, eyes future growth
Joyce Dawson, 79, waved goodbye to her daughter standing on the Sonoma- Marin Area Rail Transit platform in San Rafael before settling into her forward- facing seat for the hourlong journey to visit family in Santa Rosa aboard the 11:29 a.m. train on a recent Friday.
The trip is one Dawson, who lives in the town of Ross in Marin County, has taken weekly for several months, on the train service that began a year ago. She's become a consistent rider after getting fed up with routine gridlock on Highway 101. The end of her ability to drive sealed her reliance on the new transit system to make the voyage, and she's happy to enjoy the day's Wall Street Journal over a handful of Fritos corn chips while avoiding the stress of travel.
“It's so easy, I barely even have to pay attention to the stops,” said Dawson, who's lived in Marin County her entire life. “I think they do a good job. Anything to get cars off the road.”
Others along for the ride were SMART first-timers who were just as keen on the experience as the train left the station. The chance to buy and drink wine en route to a lunch in downtown Santa Rosa to celebrate a co-worker's new job didn't hurt.
“This is so nice. I'm just going to sit back and relax,” said Angela Neal, 43, of San Leandro, after clinking plastic cups of Kendall-Jackson sauvignon blanc across the aisle with friends. “I'm going to have to bring the kids on this.”
The North Bay's fledgling public transit system, presently taking riders along a 43-mile route between San Rafael and Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, turns 1 next week. The milestone is inspiring pride within the agency's most passionate advocates. It's also revived debates among skeptics - many of whom referred to SMART as a “train to nowhere” - of the agency's delayed progress toward becoming the solution it was proclaimed to be for commuters and visitors to the region.
“What nobody can deny is how busy the trains are and how many people are in them,” said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART. “A ‘train to nowhere' has carried 690,000 people, so obviously it's a train to somewhere. Sixty-some thousand bicyclists is not a ‘train to nowhere.' There are a lot of people who are using it for something.”
Much like ongoing construction at the next station south in Larkspur, which will link SMART directly to the ferry to San Francisco, the public transit line remains a work in progress, most acknowledge. But questions persist about the sustainability and usefulness of a system that has so far cost a half-billion dollars despite having three cities in northern Sonoma County awaiting planned stations and a second unbuilt platform in Petaluma.
A year in, it's difficult to detect measurable effects on traffic through Marin and Sonoma counties, as well as on greenhouse-gas emissions. Improvements in both areas were part of the pitch to voters in 2008 when they were asked to pass a ¼-cent sales tax to fund SMART. Caltrans figures from several Highway 101 locations near rail stations continue to show monthly traffic increases in the past year, and, lacking a study, the potential environmental gains brought by SMART are at best speculative.
Similarly, the transit system has not ramped up to a level that offers passengers a train every 30 minutes during weekday rush hours or expands its limited weekend service. Economic impacts from tourism and business travelers are to this point anecdotal only, according to the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.
System backers concede SMART's beginnings as a “really, really bumpy road.” But most, including Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, take the critiques in stride and are pleased with the commuter rail's progress and where it stands approaching its one-year anniversary.
“We have to remind ourselves that it's one of the largest public works projects in over 100 years in the Bay Area,” said Zane, who is a nine-year SMART board member. “You don't turn the switch on and have this perfect train system.”
Stressing safety, ridership
Rather than focusing on some of the system's grander aspirations of traffic relief and carbon reductions, Zane said the agency has been emphasizing operations, safety and ridership, and will look to make good on past pledges after moving beyond the one-year mark of trains zipping back and forth between the two counties. In accordance with its main thrust, the service has begun seeing monthly ridership gains. Despite some public sticker shock when prices were first announced, it has carried a reported 700,000 passengers and nearly 63,000 bicycles since last August, and hit weekly fare revenues that surpass the $68,000 necessary to stay on budget.