Last month, I began comparing our not-yet-running SMART train with Denver’s up-and-running University of Colorado A Line, which whisks travelers from the international airport to downtown Denver. There are similarities, including primary funding (sales taxes), capacity of two-car train units (318 to 340 riders), number of stations (8 to 10), top speed of trains (79 mph) and basic fare structure (a top nondiscounted round-trip fare of $18 on the A Line, $23 on SMART).
But there are some big differences, too, enough differences to cause concern.
First, it’s called the University of Colorado A Line for a reason: The university pays $1 million per year for naming rights. SMART doesn’t receive naming rights income but hopes for some advertising revenue.
Second, the A Line is powered by electricity for environmental reasons. SMART is diesel.
Third, SMART has only seven trains of two cars each, while the A line has up to 28 two-car trains available. With trains running, often simultaneously, south from Santa Rosa and north from San Rafael, SMART is doing many test runs to make sure trains can meet the proposed schedule. Go online (www.sonomamarintrain.org) and look at the proposed schedule. Note the beginning-of-line departure times and end-of-line arrival times, then remember SMART has a single track for parts of each run. You begin to see the challenges.
SMART has ordered four more cars, which will yield two more two-car trains at a cost of $11 million. These will help, but scheduling will continue to be very tight and dependent on nothing going wrong.
Next, let’s discuss grade crossings (the roads where gates come down and traffic stops as trains go by). The A Line has 13 grade crossings in 23 miles, while SMART has more than 60 grade crossings in 43 miles. Motorists and pedestrians are notoriously impatient with crossing gates, sometimes driving or walking around them to avoid waiting for a train. Motorists sometimes speed up to beat closing gates then get trapped on the rails. It won’t take more than one such accident or one incident of gate closing failure to really mess up SMART’s schedule.
Then there’s parking. Denver’s A Line has 4,300 dedicated parking spaces for its eight stations, while SMART has what’s diplomatically called “different parking profiles for various stations.” That translates as not much parking at all. In general, passengers won’t be able to park their cars easily or inexpensively at SMART stations.
Sixth, Denver’s A Line has synchronized bus service to every station, while SMART “hopes” to have such service at some point in the future.
There’s a monumental difference between the number of A Line trains actually running each day (more then 140) and the proposed number of daily SMART trains (30, half heading north and half heading south). A Line trains operate up to 21 hours per day, every day, with trains departing every 15 minutes. By comparison, SMART projects 30 train departures at half-hour intervals each weekday and many fewer on weekends, operating about 13 hours per weekday and fewer hours on weekends.
In its eighth week of operation, Denver’s A Line carried 108,200 passengers, meaning an average daily ridership in excess of 15,000. SMART is predicting average weekday ridership of 3,000 or more. I think this is optimistic, especially after the novelty wears off, because the geographic corridor to be served by SMART isn’t densely populated and the stations aren’t exactly where passengers want to go. Service to Larkspur has many hurdles and the end-of-the-line station in Santa Rosa is not actually at the Charles M. Schulz - Sonoma County Airport.
SMART has promised shuttle buses, provided either by SMART or by major employers—but it’s a lot to ask potential passengers to figure out shuttle schedules, train schedules and ferry schedules to make using the train any sort of practical alternative. Let’s face it: SMART won’t be an effective tool for commuters going to San Francisco, and SMART’s own ridership predictions forecast pitifully few people will get on the train in Marin County heading north. The heaviest ridership predictions were Healdsburg/Windsor to Santa Rosa/Rohnert Park, but train service to Windsor and Healdsburg is years away. And there’s still that nagging question as to how many passengers SMART will simply be taking away from other transportation options such as Golden Gate Transit.
Finally, Denver’s A Line is run by a concessionaire rather than directly by its Regional Transportation District (RTD). Also, employees hired by the RTD after 2005 no longer participate in the type of super-expensive defined benefit pension plan that covers SMART employees. The average pay and benefits for the top ten SMART employees in 2014 was $207,000. It’s undoubtedly higher now.
Clearly, SMART a great place to work. Now we just need answers to all those questions about how the train will work.
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