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December, 2002

SMART Rail - Frivolous Fast-Track to Rapid Growth
By Louis Nuyens

For many years, pro-growth interests have been pushing for transportation projects that would hasten development of Marin and Sonoma. As you read this, the Sonoma and Marin County Boards of Supervisors are fast-tracking just such a project. It is expensive, awkward, and unnecessary, and it will be coming after local pocketbooks.

The project is the latest incarnation of plans for a Sonoma-Marin rail system. Rail was also included in 1998 Marin ballot measures A and B; with heavy backing from development interests, A passed, authorizing investigation of certain transportation improvements, but the funding part, B, did not pass.

In the last state legislative session, Assemblyman Joe Nation's AB 2224 drove the golden spike by creating the Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit ('SMART') District, effective 01 January 2003. Among other things, AB 2224 provides for creation of a tax assessment district encompassing both counties, to fund the project. Nation has also reportedly considered legislation to do away with the two-thirds vote required for voter approval of new taxes, in favor of a simple majority approval requirement to further SMART.

The Basic Idea

SMART would be a single-track train line running between Cloverdale and central Marin. Initially it would have 9 stops in Sonoma and 5 in Marin. As funding becomes available, offshoot lines could be added.

To enable continuation to San Francisco, efforts would be made to run SMART to ferry terminals; sites that have been discussed include new ferry terminals at Port Sonoma, San Quentin (if the jail were to close), or the Marin Rod and Gun Club, and the existing location at Larkspur landing.

The Environmental Impact Report / Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS - state/federal) process has just begun, to be finished in 2004. If all goes as planned, parts of the system could be online as early as 2007.

The cost would be upwards of $200M, plus approximately $9M per year in operating costs. An estimated $3M would be recovered per year at the fare box; the rest would be from various forms of tax-dollar subsidies.

Running the Numbers

Based on the numbers, SMART would be extraordinarily expensive, even under the kindest assumptions-it cannot survive without heavy taxpayer assistance.

Spreading construction costs over 25 years, then adding in 20 years of operations less what is recovered at the fare box, and assuming zero interest, zero inflation, and no cost overruns, yields about $12.8M in subsidies per year.

The SMART commission estimates 5,100 trips daily. Assuming that level of ridership every day of the year yields 1,861,500 trips annually, and a subsidy $6.87 per ticket. If Sonoma's population were to double over that period of time, resulting in twice the ridership, and assuming no cost increases in operations, per ticket subsidies would be $3.43, still about twice what subsidies for buses are, today.

Lots of estimates like this one will be flying around in the coming months.

Note that these numbers do not include the additional costs of bus and ferry trip segments to and from the rail stations.

With all the money that could be saved, by expanding bus service rather than building rail, some suggest that the freight company rights of way could be bought to turn existing track into 75 miles of bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

Common Sense

Rail makes the most sense where rapid development is desired. In Marin, SMART would run through what environmentalists call the bayside corridor, a part of Marin they would like to see protected from additional development.

A typical commuter going to SF might take an auto or a bus to the train station, then the train to Marin, transfer to a ferry, and then possibly transfer to a bus once in SF. With all the transfers involved in commuting to SF by rail, bus is likely to be faster, as well as more flexible and far less expensive.

At least one major study suggests that expanded bus service as a viable solution for north bay transit needs. Addition of a single, reversible, bus-only or bus plus 3-passenger carpool lane to the Novato Narrows would make a Sonoma-Marin bus a powerful solution.

Who Benefits

The primary beneficiaries of a Marin-Sonoma rail would be development interests who want help to explode into Sonoma faster than Sonoma can develop an intelligent, sustainable local economy-by promising a convenient commute to SF-and who want Marin and Sonoma taxpayers to foot the bill. With most of the east bay and south bay paved into urban oblivion and suburban sprawl, Marin and Sonoma glisten like emerald jewels that pro-growth forces dearly want to pluck.

Too Many Loose Ends

Environmentalists have vowed they would fight relentlessly to prevent creation of a ferry terminal at Port Sonoma. Proposals for high-speed ferry system also concern many environmentalists, who say that high-speed ferries disturb sensitive shoreline habitat and pollute many times more per passenger than single-occupant automobiles.

In Marin, SMART is being presented as part of a comprehensive package, but most of the package is just window dressing: specified bicycle route improvements miss where they are most needed, many elements are left vague in both implementation and financing, etc. In addition, the Marin Transportation Vision website (MarinTraffic.org) estimates the total cost of all improvements as being over $1.2B; already in the bank is only about $65M, and that money is being earmarked for rail. The intent is clearly to put the main rail line in as soon as possible.

One of the selling points of SMART, in response to the fact that it will likely never continue into San Francisco or the east bay, is the argument that more Sonoma drivers end their trips in Marin than travel on into San Francisco. But, if trips to Alameda and Contra Costa are included, surveys indicate that more Sonoma drivers travel through Marin than finish in Marin. And trends indicate that the number of Sonoma trips through Marin may be increasing much faster than the number of Sonoma trips ending in Marin.

SMART proponents admit that SMART will do nothing to reduce congestion on 101; "latent demand" and stimulated growth are two of the factors involved.

It would take an article over twice this long to cover all of SMART's downsides.

The Bottom Line

If one had to have rail, the SMART Commission is making it seem as attractive as possible, discussing different designs for the stations, including preservation of historic stations, creation of food and wine centers nearby, shuttle buses to stations. It would be easy to get caught up in the technological delights of hammering out the details of design, but one should resist the temptation -this is a project that should be let drop.

Compared with bus, rail is noisy, environmentally unfriendly, inflexible, and extraordinarily expensive. Rail might be a good idea for Sonoma, alone, depending on how fast Sonoma wants to grow. If Sonoma wants to become the next San Jose, Marin can't stop that, but Marin residents should not have to pay for it in environmental damage, increased highway congestion, and tax dollars.

For Marin, 'SMART' is just plain dumb.

If you want fast, efficient, flexible, affordable transit between Marin and Sonoma, don't bother writing comments to the SMART Commission - write to the Marin Congestion Agency and to the Marin and Sonoma Boards of Supervisors; ask them to expand north bay bus service, and to stop wasting your tax dollars on SMART.

At this writer's request, the SMART commission has promised to make court-reporter transcripts of recent EIR/EIS scoping sessions available on their website (www.sonomamarintrain.org).

 

 

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