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North Bay’s SMART train turns 1, eyes future growth

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SMART CELEBRATION

What: A festival for SMART’s first year of operation will feature live music, food trucks and more than 30 booths. The train will also be free to passengers all weekend.

Benefit: Sales of beer and wine at the party will go to Becoming Independent, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that assists people with disabilities.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hamilton Station, Novato

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.

SMART CELEBRATION

What: A festival for SMART’s first year of operation will feature live music, food trucks and more than 30 booths. The train will also be free to passengers all weekend.

Benefit: Sales of beer and wine at the party will go to Becoming Independent, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that assists people with disabilities.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hamilton Station, Novato

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.

Those benchmarks have come even as the system has weathered a considerable dip in sales tax receipts from the Great Recession, which struck just before funds began to roll in in 2009 and left the agency playing catch-up. The October wildfires also put a damper on the system’s launch, hurt ridership and removed crucial housing stock that would have contributed to hiring and keeping more engineers to expand service.

“I’m really proud of our agency,” said SMART board chair Deb Fudge, a councilwoman in the Town of Windsor. “I’m very happy we pulled it off with the challenges we’ve had. SMART still has some detractors, but they are very much in the minority. There are people who will never give up.”

Those detractors continue to beat the drum of rising costs, postponed station completion dates and a reliance on state and federal grants to construct key components of the originally proposed 70-mile line from Larkspur to Cloverdale. They argue taxpayers saw no benefit for eight years from hundreds of millions of dollars invested, and say they believe the money would have been better used to improve existing roadways and public transit systems rather than on SMART, which at least one critic has called “a boondoggle.”

“It’s all about cost versus benefits and the fact they were lying to the public,” said Mike Arnold, a financial risk consultant who lives in Novato. “It was a bogus forecast. They claimed they could finance the full 70 miles, but the actual numbers financed only half of the line.”

Arnold, who has taught economics part time at UC Berkeley and Sonoma State University, co-chaired the two campaigns to defeat the sales tax measure to fund SMART. That effort was successful in 2006 with Measure R, but lost out two years later when the ¼-cent tax went back on the ballot. Measure Q’s 20-year tax received nearly 70 percent of the vote between Sonoma and Marin counties and passed.

Arnold contends it would have taken a ½-cent tax to acquire the funds necessary to build the full system, and voter appetite would not have supported that. What passed has so far fallen more than $35 million short of SMART’s forecast, as a result of the economic downturn and what the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission later confirmed were overprojections of sales tax revenues. That’s led to five fewer stations than planned being finished to date, hurting SMART’s present-day viability.

“They’ve spent a lot of money to generate just a few users,” said Arnold. “It’s a tremendous amount of money to spend on something that does very little good.”

Talk to SMART’s burgeoning ridership, including Amy Gilbert, 46, and they disagree. The longtime librarian at Dominican University in San Rafael traveled the ¼-mile from her Rohnert Park home to hop the train for the first time last week and savored easterly views of the Sonoma Mountains on the trip to work.

“It’s lovely,” said Gilbert, who planned to start riding more often. “I was kind of excited to see more of this and watch it rather than watch the car in front of me. It’s comfortable, and I’m stoked.”

Lara Hunt, 43, of Petaluma, recently became a steady SMART user to commute to on-call shifts at three different North Bay locations for her job at a pet food store. Standing beside her metallic purple road bike on the way to the Hamilton Station in Novato, she said she didn’t mind the expense to get around, though she wished for more frequent afternoon service.

“That would be nice,” said Hunt, wearing dark sunglasses and a black bicycle helmet. “For the ease and the fact that it’s more reliable than the bus, I’d rather take the train. And it’s much quicker.”

Completing system a priority

In addition to bolstering service on the weekdays and weekends, completing construction of the system along with a promised bike path is among SMART’s top priorities.

“The current SMART board of directors, and every single staff (member) on SMART is committed and working very hard to deliver the vision that was promised on all fronts,” said Mansourian. “We must deliver Larkspur to Cloverdale on the train. We must deliver as much of the bike path as is potentially possible.”

A third Novato station downtown is partially built, but the completion of Larkspur, which is slated to open by the end of 2019, wraps up the original guarantee to Marin County. Funding from Senate Bill 1 and the recently voter-approved Bay Area bridge toll hike through Regional Measure 3 has secured the $55 million to build to Windsor by the end of 2021, and perhaps part of the way to Healdsburg with another $6 million. How Cloverdale factors in remains unknown.

Potential new obstacles stand in the way, however, with California voters set to decide this November whether to repeal the gas tax increase in SB1 and a recent legal challenge by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association against the regional measure. The lawsuit claims the forthcoming toll hikes over the next seven years reach the threshold of a prohibited tax, rather than a mere fee.

Should even one of the challenges prevail, it would instantly dash SMART’s current plans to Windsor, and further delay delivering on the promises made to the public about the nascent North Bay transit system.

“I don’t worry about things I don’t control,” said Mansourian, adding he doesn’t work to please critics. “We are committed to keep going, and if that door is closed, we’ll go kick another door open. And when that one is closed, we’ll go kick the third one open. We just deal with reality and plan, and alter plans and our game plan is to be successful, regardless of barriers.”

SMART’s first year was marked by high-profile collisions, including two women who positioned themselves in front of trains to take their own lives and a box truck that was destroyed after the driver proceeded through a crossing gate that was down. Such incidents, while disturbing and tragic, are something Mansourian has said the agency braced for.

“It’s puts a pall over the whole agency,” Fudge said of the most recent suicide Monday — a 72-year-old Marin County woman who was crawling on the tracks just north of Novato’s Hamilton Station. “It’s just the saddest thing.”

The deaths hindered service by removing vital staff from the job because of internal and federal transit protocols, while the truck accident caused the train $700,000 in damage and will put the car out of commission for at least eight months.

90-minute service gaps

Eliminating some of the 90-minute weekday gaps between trains is another of SMART’s primary aims transitioning into the coming year of operations. Doing so requires resolving engineer and maintenance crew shortages that have lingered in a region with a high cost of living and severe housing crisis made worse by October’s wildfires.

The possible sale of land owned by the transit agency in Railroad Square at the Santa Rosa Downtown station to a residential developer may spur some answers. So could a curriculum being developed at Sonoma State, Santa Rosa Junior College and post-secondary school in Marin County to train future train staff.

As SMART turns the page on Year One, the next year could prove just as significant in the public rail system’s long-term success and ability to come through on its commitment to the region. It’s the agency’s goal to continue building momentum toward becoming the primary alternative to traffic jams on Highway 101 and develop into the critical link between the communities of the North Bay.

“That’s really what SMART is, it’s an option,” said Mansourian. “And it’s our first year. All we can do is just grow from here, learn and do better. We don’t worry about what happened in the past, and some of these critics want to take you back. We’re just going to keep building, that’s our focus. We’re focused on going from end to end.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.