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Smart Train, Dumb Idea?

It’s just a first step, planners say—but for now, it’s unclear whom the SMART train serves.

 

Read more of the New Sonoma Crush here.

 

When the Sonoma-Marin area rail transit (SMART) offered a sneak peek at its train service over the summer, riders of all ages crammed into the sleek cars to watch sun-browned hills and marshes roll by. David Smith, a trim, bespectacled rail enthusiast from Santa Rosa, brought his seven-year-old son, Trevor, along for the ride. “How cool is this?” Trevor said, gazing out the windows at passing wetlands and egrets.

Cool it is: The minimalist cars aren’t exactly luxury travel, but they offer table seating, Wi-Fi, even beer and wine. The ride is beautiful and relaxing. The only problem: It’s practically useless.

Almost a decade in the making, the SMART line was touted as a passenger service that would get drivers off jam-packed Highway 101. It took two tries at the ballot before Sonoma and Marin County voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax in 2008 to fund it. But the economy tanked, and the funding shortfall forced the service to be built in stages. The first, and largest, stage officially launched in August, running between the Sonoma County Airport and downtown San Rafael, with 10 stops including Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and Novato. Crucially, though, SMART doesn’t yet connect North Bay commuters to the Larkspur Ferry, which would allow for a one-transfer commute to San Francisco.

For all the hoopla surrounding the train, that’s left a lot of locals wondering: How smart, exactly, is this?

As long as there’s a gap between SMART and San Francisco, the short answer is: not very. Each day, about 25,000 people from Marin County commute into the city. (Marin’s commuters have, on average, the second-longest trek, at 30 miles, in the Bay Area, trailing only Solano’s.) Another 37,000 people commute from Sonoma County to neighboring counties—mostly to the south. It all leads to intense bottlenecks through San Rafael, on the Waldo Grade, and on the Golden Gate Bridge. And until the new rail service connects to the Larkspur Ferry—which isn’t expected for another year at least—it’s unlikely to take a bite out of that.

SMART leadership argues that even with its limited scope, the train will surely alleviate some gridlock. But consider: Each of the two-car SMART trains holds about 300 passengers, with no options to run longer trains, according to general manager Farhad Mansourian. In terms of overall traffic, that’s barely a drop in the bucket. (If all eight of SMART’s morning trains were completely full, in total they’d move only 2,400 people; meanwhile, 40,000 cars cross the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco each morning.) Mansourian gets a bit cagey when he’s asked just how many cars SMART is expected to take off 101. “I’ll tell you a year from now,” he says. “Once we open our doors, we’ll see how many people will switch over.”

The other hope for SMART is that it might boost carless tourism to wine country. Even there, though, the staggered rollout means that most of its promise is still hypothetical. Plans for stations in Windsor, Healdsburg, and Cloverdale are all still TBD. Given the uphill battle to raise the $500 million needed to get the current routes up and running, don’t hold your breath on taking the train to northern Sonoma wineries anytime soon.

Still, the not-quite-perfect service attracted mostly oohs and aahs on its preview day. R.W. Hessler was among those at least cautiously optimistic. He lives in Santa Rosa and works in downtown San Rafael—making him one of the lucky few for whom the service makes sense. For others, SMART will remain more of a curiosity until it expands. David Smith, who was dazzled by that first ride on the train, works in Sebastopol, so SMART isn’t a commute option for him.

Asked when he might ever board the sleek new train, he paused to think. “I can imagine riding it for pleasure, or to events in San Rafael,” he said, before trailing off, still thinking.

He’d run out of ideas.

  

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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