Exploring Sonoma and Marin Counties SMARTer by Train?

Exploring Sonoma and Marin Counties SMARTer by Train?

By: Sandra Parhami

As a Southern California native, my first experience traveling by train was the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, along the California coast, followed by a recent journey through the forest hills of Felton aboard the Roaring Camp Railroads. Neither of these experiences prepared me for the Bay Area’s newest transportation addition: the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART). I was lucky enough to get a new perspective and embark on an educational endeavor through an event put on by the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce to experience SMART first hand.


Stemming from the passage of California State Assembly Bill 2224 in 2002, which allowed SMART to impose voter-approved taxes, the project has brought in over 243 million dollars since 2011— the year General Manager Farhad Mansourian was hired to oversee the construction. As costly and timely as this project has been, I was intrigued to garner a better understanding of the return on this investment by observing the train’s impact on the individuals and businesses in the two counties. This eventful day was packed with informative insight and input from the SMART staff, as well as local individuals who utilize the train.


Believe it or not, the development of SMART is still in progress. Our first stop of the day was a construction site where the connection from the San Rafael Station to the Golden Gate Transit Larkspur Ferry Terminal is underway. The addition of a parallel bike and pedestrian path is soon to follow, in keeping the promise that SMART made to its voters.


General Manager Farhad Mansourian informed our group that this 1.6 mile bike lane has a 4.5 million dollar price tag. This significant cost, which initially brought forth feelings of anger and confusion by many local constituents, came from the need to reconstruct the bike path that runs under a tunnel, parallel to the train’s route. Not only did SMART exceed that budget, but they hit 14 million for just the .4 miles of the bike lane that runs through the tunnel.


Since SMART is running on taxpayer money, it is crucial they do what is necessary to uphold their promises and deliver results, at whatever cost.


But was this addition worth it?


Although this was a costly development, watching bikers zoom by one after the other remedied the sting a little. There is small debate over whether a connection between San Rafael and Larkspur is necessary— but the burden lies in the price tag. Decision makers needed to establish whether the cost would be worth the benefits; in this case, closing a crucial gap for commuters who bike and walk from the San Rafael Station to the Ferry Terminal, was enough to overcome the overwhelming price tag.


I later learned that SMART has transported over 38,000 bikes so far— 374 on that one day! This is crucial because the desired result of SMART is to take people out of their cars—  these numbers provided direct evidence of taking steps towards this goal.

So, not only does rebuilding the costly bike path tunnel uphold SMART’s promise to taxpayers, it allows people to get to the station in other ways than driving, which is an essential part of the mission for SMART: to decrease the amount of traffic congestion on the streets.


With my new acquired knowledge of SMART’s ridership and project development, I was ecstatic to ride the train for myself.


Then, it was all aboard SMART!


I observed the array of tasty snacks and drinks available at the Buzz Concession stand, and had myself a refreshment before sitting at a table.


That new train smell? You bet it was there.


Not only that, but a general sense of gratification among the individuals on the train. Specifically, a man in his mid 20’s approached our group. He shared with us that he has been taking the train to and from work, from Santa Rosa to Downtown San Rafael, and is extremely pleased with its consistency and comfort.


The general theme of the day was how the train actually brings people from the Sonoma and Marin counties together: “Highways are meant to bypass communities, and trains are meant to connect them,” said Joanne Parker, SMART’s funding manager.


Essentially, the train provides transportation to those who are unable to drive themselves, specifically the elderly or disabled. A waitress at a restaurant in Downtown San Rafael exclaimed that she’d been working there for years, and has noticed an increased flow of consumers since the emergence of SMART: “Grandparents are able to visit their grandchildren who work in San Rafael. It’s a game-changer for us.”


The economic impact on the restaurant and entertainment industry is something to take note of- business is booming for those in Downtown San Rafael with this added mode of transportation.


You may be wondering, with all the success that comes with SMART, what the biggest complaints have been? You may be surprised to hear that one of the biggest complaints is that there aren’t enough trains— people want more trains, more often, and at later times. Farhad emphasized how this is a learning process, and as time goes on they hope to adjust to the needs of its riders, in hopes of boosting the current daily average ridership of 2,291.


General Manager Farhad explained that he has been under a barrage of criticism from different cities asking him why there isn’t a train station in place yet— ones that were against the rail to begin with! But, their constituents are shifting as they see SMART is a popular and convenient way to travel.  


As the scenic view from the train shifted from yellow poppies and bright grasslands to a site of destruction and wreckage, where the Sonoma wildfires left their mark, I couldn’t help but feel shattered and upset at first. However, those feelings quickly turned into excitement and hopefulness as I thought about how much Sonoma is investing in a bigger, brighter future, through the very train I rode on.  


Although this is a tremendous investment in the future of Sonoma and Marin, the project faced multiple obstacles. SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian provided insight into the difficulties and hardships faced during the development of this project.


SMART had countless opponents, he explained. While over 70% of Sonoma County was in favor of the project, constituents of Marin County were opposed to the train in fear of it resulting in denser housing.


The theme of housing continues: Farhad expressed the difficulty of housing their rail staff in competition with Bart in the East, which has more affordable housing nearby. The median home value in Marin County now tops a million, while Sonoma County home values have gone up 9.3% over the last year. This plays a role in SMART’s expenses and budgeting, as they need to offer more competitive wages to hold onto their rail staff and transportation engineers.


Since SMART was already walking on a thin line, they needed to ensure the public they will take the steps necessary to address their concerns— at whatever cost. Perhaps the most shocking case was that $180,000 went towards the moving and replanting of a “legend” tree that was along the route— one that UC Berkeley students and nearby communities believe to be one of a kind. Not to mention that the tree was 125 feet tall, which is twelve stories high! An investment like this, to ensure validation from the public and demonstrate care for environmental and community vitality, was an investment worth taking for SMART.


It has become evident to me throughout the day that a large part of SMART’s costs originate from the need to meet expectations and maintain competitive wages to retain a qualified staff.


Not only has SMART proven to be a costly project, one that has certainly gone above it’s proposed budget, the rail service became available to the public in 2017— almost four years behind schedule. However, an analysis of the benefits provided by SMART, and how efficiently SMART takes people out of their cars can put these costs in context, as time goes on and they adjust to their riders’ needs.


If you asked me about my favorite part of the day, I would tell you that the highlight of it all was the moment I looked out the window and saw the traffic congestion along Highway 101 in parallel to the train’s route, knowing that instead I was traveling at 79 mph— a moment of gratification and understanding for those who choose to travel by SMART.