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November, 2006

Why "SMART" Ain't
Sonoma-Marin Measure R
By Louis Nuyens

Most of us like public transit. We like it because, when done well, it can reduce pollution and various other impacts of travel. For those reasons, many of us support both bus, as general propositions.
However, we must accept that not every transit modality is equally applicable to every setting.

The proposed Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit ("SMART") system may well be the clearest example of a proposed rail system that brings no net benefit in its setting.

If passed, "SMART" could easily vie for the 'honor' of being our nation's worst commute rail system.

In short, "SMART" would not relieve congestion on Hwy. 101; "SMART" will increase arterial congestion; it is questionable whether "SMART's" overall impact will reduce greenhouse gasses at all. "SMART" would not be net loss if it cost nothing, yet it would cost a fortune.

Here are just a few of "SMART's" fatal flaws:

"SMART" would be the ONLY commuter rail operating entirely within a semi-rural/suburban area in the entire US; every other goes through at least one significant central business district where commuters can walk to their jobs (for example, 80% of BART's ridership begins or ends in downtown S.F. or Oakland) -- rail systems are only effective when they travel to a dense central business district (studies indicate that where rail systems are put into areas that are not densely urban, overall transit ridership actually tends to decrease);

"SMART" will promote increased development, especially in Sonoma, by encouraging increased density in some locations without commensurate reductions in other locations - this is already happening - this factor alone could significantly erode or erase the supposed benefits of "SMART";

Some of the funding "SMART" is counting on would require an average of 2,200 new units per station, near the line - that's 30,800 new units near Hwy. 101 - if each household averages 5-10 trips (going to the store and back is two trips - Marin households average 10 trips per day), that will mean 150,000 to 300,000 additional trips on or near Hwy. 101 each day (talk about congestion!) all for a system that will carry only ~5,100 trips per day;

At the same time, "SMART" does not include commensurate land preservation elsewhere;

Many of the primary funders of "SMART" P.R. are pro-growth interests;

Transit experts estimate per-ride subsidies at $45-$50 (if construction costs and financing are included), assuming dense development near stations and maximum ridership every day (best case), versus less than $9 for bus and ferry rides;

Based on operating costs alone, SMART costs are ~$20/ride, by far the worst in the bay area and three times the bay area average;

"SMART" is crippled by poor integration - real-world trips between the majority of points in either county would be cheaper and faster by bus;

"SMART" is so dysfunctional in the north bay setting that overall ridership is projected to decrease over time, rather than rise - ridership will start small and end up smaller;

"SMART" will take money that could be used by other, superior transit systems - this factor alone will almost certainly result in more auto-hours with "SMART" than without, and more green-house gas emissions (in general, SMART's published comparisons with alternatives aren't reality-based - the station-to-station trip times by rail do not reflect real-world door-to-door origins-destinations);

"SMART" would increase detrimental environmental impacts in the Marin baylands, prioritized for preservation by several prominent North Bay environmental organizations (which is part of why "SMART" is opposed by Marin Audubon Society, Marin Conservation League, and others);

Unlike many other systems, "SMART" ridership is severely capped - significantly increasing ridership would cost many times the already enormous price tag of the proposed system;

Therefore "SMART" is unlikely to ever be a viable link in regional transit or a viable alternative to Hwy. 101;

Although proponents and developers are billing it as a connection to San Francisco, "SMART" does not effectively connect well to the Larkspur ferry;

The theoretical ("frictionless") advantages of rail fail when there are many at-grade crossings and poor integration with other systems - pollution and other costs are externalized but not reduced; "SMART" will cause a significant increase in auto-hours on the road due to increased arterial congestion - this factor alone would almost certainly cancel out the benefits supposed of "SMART";

No options are lost by voting down the current proposal - the rail right-of-way can be the basis of better proposals in the future.

There are numerous factors - far too many to list here - each of which limits the utility and performance of the "SMART" system; cumulatively, more harm than good seems a certainty.

When we brush the shimmers of folkloric rail romance and wishful thinking from our eyes, "SMART" is not a "good step forward"; it provides virtually no net benefit, at an extraordinarily high cost.

If we want a truly viable North Bay transit system, with the potential to be a practical regional link, then we should look at bus-only solutions, and possibly at a rail system for Sonoma and Mendocino that connects in Petaluma to a robust Marin bus system.

A pure rails-to-trails solution could also be viable - up to 7,000 trips per day are projected for a multi-use path along the rail line (2,000 more per day than the $1.4B rail system), at a cost of only $80M - and a conversion of the rail line to a trail would cause far less environmental damage.

The best way to uphold our goals for good transit would be to oppose "SMART" and look for superior options.

Not only are there far better solutions, the proposed "SMART" is really not a solution at all.

The basics of "SMART"
If all goes as well as projected by the rail agency EIR, the first 20 years of "SMART" would result in

Total costs of $1.4B+
A mostly single-track rail system between San Rafael or Larkspur and Cloverdale

14-stations - 9 in Sonoma County, 5 in Marin County

Weekday-only commute train service, plus unspecified freight traffic potentially at all hours

About 100 at-grade crossings, each of which will posed hazards to pedestrians and auto traffic, and many of which will probably require very loud horn blasts from early morning until late night

A grand total of only ~230 round-trip riders from Sonoma to Marin each weekday morning (out of 20,000 Sonoma-to-Marin commuters), and only ~2,500 total round trip riders each weekday

Decreasing ridership over time, projected at around 5,300 trips per day initially, and falling to 5,100 trip per day in 20 years.

For more information, see,, and

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