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The Not So Smart Train

Columnist: Bob Andrews
May, 2017 Issue

Bob Andrews
All articles by columnist

Quite a few people have told me about being caught in traffic waiting at SMART’s 63 grade crossings as trains have been tested for the past months.

It’s mid-March and I’m wondering (again) whether SMART will be providing train passenger service anytime soon. Will SMART’s latest prediction of “late Spring 2017” come true? It’s been almost eight-and-a-half years since voters approved Measure Q on the November 4, 2008 ballot. The ballot summary was just 80 words, and they fit my definition of kumbaya: “To relieve traffic, fight global warming, and increase transportation options, shall Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District be authorized to provide two-way passenger train service every 30 minutes during weekday rush hours, weekend service, a bicycle/pedestrian pathway linking the stations, and connections to ferry/bus service, by levying a quarter-cent sales tax for 20 years…”

It’s worth noting that the full text of Measure Q was about 8,000 words, plus graphs and maps. I suspect that very, very few people read the full text, which contained additional optimistic predictions of what SMART would provide. Let’s keep track, so to speak, of where things stand.

Since SMART isn’t carrying passengers yet, traffic relief is zero. SMART’s own Environmental Impact Report predicted the trains would have little impact on 101 freeway congestion. Quite a few people have told me about being caught in traffic waiting at SMART’s 63 grade crossings as trains have been tested for the past months. No progress has been made against global warming, although SMART touts its “clean diesel”—not electric—engines. Unfortunately, design flaws have required replacement of the engines. And what other company touted “clean diesel” engines? Oh yes, Volkswagen.

The ballot literature promised a 70-mile rail system from Cloverdale to Larkspur, yet the passenger system being tested is 43 miles from airport/Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael. Actual service to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale to the north, and to Larkspur to the south, is further in the future. San Rafael and SMART are not exactly on the same page about the proposed service extension to Larkspur, and Healdsburg is building a huge new traffic circle through which the train will need to run. "When?” I asked a Healdsburg official. "Not anytime soon," he replied.

The ballot literature predicted that engineering and construction would be completed by 2013, and passenger train service would start in 2014. Oops. Is the bicycle-pedestrian path completed, linking the reduced number of stations? No. Perhaps the single greatest roadblock to the beginning of train service has to do with “Signal Testing.” It’s too complicated to discuss in this column, but I urge everyone to read the “Signal Testing” section of an October 19, 2016 document entitled, “Update on SMART Opening Date” under “SMART links” on the SMART website.

The ballot literature predicted sales tax revenue would be $45 million annually. I did a quick check on the financials for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014, and found that sales and use-tax revenue was about $32.5 million, rising to $34.7 million for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2016. Thank goodness salaries and employee benefits have kept pace, rising from $4 million in fiscal 2014 to $8.5 million in fiscal 2016.

What could go wrong? A recent general manager’s report noted flooding of train tracks near the San Rafael Civic Center station and destruction of communications equipment at the Puerto Suello tunnel, again due to flooding. The report also noted that there are continuing problems of trespassers and even campers on the train right of way.

And about those train “stations.” They’re platforms, not “stations” in the romanticized vision of train travel. The two platforms in Santa Rosa are each about 260 feet long, with only a portion of the middle one-third partially covered. Nothing is enclosed. They have only 16 seats, with no benches that would be handy for homeless campers. There are no bathrooms and no water fountains. My wife and I toured the Santa Rosa North station (near Guerneville Road, west of Coddingtown) and found it exceedingly spare. This station has zero designated parking and is basically only accessible by foot. Try it yourself. Try to go by car. You will be frustrated. Then try wending your way by foot from Santa Rosa Junior College to the station. Take water, snacks, a map and appropriately comfortable walking shoes.


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