SMART Slows Down

SMART is in trouble. With the tagline “Let’s stop this train wreck,” Novato’s John Parnell is organizing volunteers to repeal it; Marin supervisors want to review its financial future; and letters to the Marin I.J. call it a “train to nowhere” with readers saying they were “deceived and lied to.”

I say let’s take a close look at SMART, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit.

On November 4th of 2008, 70 percent of Marin and Sonoma County’s voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase to develop a 70-mile commuter rail line and biking/hiking path connecting northern Sonoma with the Larkspur Landing ferry terminal, giving SMART life. Two weeks later, the global economy crashed.

Before the vote, according to spokesperson Chris Coursey, SMART anticipated the tax increase would generate $890 million over 20 years to fund the project. Now, thanks to the recession, that figure has dropped to $750 million—which averages $37.5 million annually. And last year, instead of an anticipated $31 million, the tax increase contributed only $25 million to SMART’s coffers. Not a great start.

“Our projections come from Chris Thornberg of Beacon Economics, a well-respected California forecaster,” says Coursey. “They’re based on an annual growth rate of 4 percent and take into account an improved economy, population growth and inflation.” However, with first-year revenues falling 20 percent short, by 2025 SMART’s annual revenues will have to double to meet that $750 million figure. How realistic is that?

Adding to the problem, since 2008 SMART’s costs have increased from $540 million to nearly $700 million. Thus, Marin’s supervisors want SMART’s entire financial structure examined. “The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will have a study ready by mid-December,” says Supervisor Charles McGlashan, “and indications are it’s mostly positive.” (The MTC is a nine-county regional planning and financing organization for the Bay Area.)

Assuming SMART’s financial future looks solid to the MTC, what comes next? Last month, the impression was given by local media that due to a down economy and higher costs, SMART would build a first phase reaching only from the Marin County Civic Center 38 miles into downtown Santa Rosa—not the entire 70-mile line that mostly parallels Highway 101.

“That’s not entirely true,” says McGlashan. “Depending on construction bids, the first phase may be extended into downtown San Rafael and, at the north end, go as far as Windsor. We won't know for about six months.”

McGlashan also points out that of 2,250 people employed at Marin’s Civic Center, nearly half live north of San Rafael and that a 2008 survey indicated that more than 800 of those would ride SMART to work once it’s operating. Moreover, SMART’s Coursey cites studies showing that 57 percent of the rail line’s anticipated riders live in the Civic Center/Santa Rosa corridor. Both he and McGlashan estimate it may take until 2020 before the entire project is operational.

Which begs the question: after completing hundreds of millions of dollars in widening projects along Highway 101 through San Rafael, just how jammed is commuter traffic coming from Sonoma County into Marin through the Novato Narrows? “Traffic is still routinely heavy through that area,” answers California Highway Patrol Officer Chris Rardin.

“However, SMART is not just about traffic,” counters transportation and planning advocate David Schonbrunn, president of “In Sonoma County, it’s also about proper regional planning.” Schonbrunn maintains that unlike Marin, Sonoma continues to develop. “The question is, will that growth be clustered around a modern transit system, or again be dependent on the almighty automobile? Which equates to sprawl.”

Meanwhile, SMART is negotiating with Sumitomo Corporation of America to purchase 18 non-polluting diesel-powered railcars for $57 million, a price advisers have called “20 percent below expectations.” In addition, the 125-year-old Cal Park Tunnel between Larkspur and San Rafael has been reopened as a bike and pedestrian path awaiting the train’s someday soon arrival. SMART’s investment here was $13 million. To date, all told, nearly $60 million has been expended in the commuter rail line’s planning, engineering and construction.

SMART is a farsighted project that will benefit the entire North Bay and serve as a progressive problem-solving example for all. I am all for it. However, before it moves forward in any manner, a financial footing must be firmly established. That’s my point of view. What is yours?

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