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Waiting for SMART? Take a Ride on the A Line.

Columnist: Bob Andrews
September, 2016 Issue

Bob Andrews
All articles by columnist

I don't think the proposed fare structure is SMART's biggest issue.

I recently visited Denver, Colo., and was very impressed with the University of Colorado A Line train that whisks travelers from the international airport to downtown. I love trains, and I especially love trains that are actually running rather than “coming sometime soon.” So I decided to compare the A Line with SMART.

There are many similarities between the two train systems, starting with the ease of getting information from them. This wasn’t always the case with SMART, which went for a long period of time without a specific information officer or media liaison. At one point in the past, I had trouble getting information from SMART, both by telephone and by email. But this time, I got good information from Jeanne Mariani-Belding and Matt Stevens at SMART. The A Line actually has a separate media relations telephone number that’s answered by Scott Reed, the communications officer. He was a wealth of facts. I also got quick information from Tara Bettale, who works with Reed.

Voter approved

Both train systems were born from voter-approved transportation sales tax measures, which were insufficient in themselves to build a new transportation system. These were followed by failed supplementary transportation sales tax measures, and then successful sales tax measures. The key measure in Colorado (2004) raised the sales tax rate in the Denver metropolitan area by 0.4 percent. The key measure in Northern California (2008) raised the sales tax rate by 0.25 percent in Sonoma and Marin counties.

SMART’s fiscal path, as noted previously in Open Trench (February and Top 500 issues, 2012), had some interesting twists. The tax measure that failed in 2006 required two-thirds voter approval in each county separately. For 2008, SMART changed the rules, so that the two-thirds threshold applied on a combined basis. To boost the chances of voter approval, SMART spent more than $1.5 million of tax money (from the previous transportation tax measure) on a powerful media campaign of “education outreach.” That newspaper, magazine and TV blitz gave us endless images of congestion on Highway 101, even though SMART’s own environmental impact report predicted the train would have very little impact on 101 traffic.

SMART has endlessly trumpeted voter approval of that tax measure, even though the system voters approved was many miles longer and several cities bigger than what we currently almost have, with bicycle/walking paths also yet to be built.

You ask: Does this really matter, since SMART hopes additional state and federal funding will allow completion of the entire system? Yes, it does matter, especially when the heaviest predicted ridership was from Windsor and Healdsburg—two towns that won’t have service for years to come. And it definitely matters that the train doesn’t run to Larkspur.

Side-by-side comparison

Denver had more money to work with and took longer (so far) to get the A Line up and running (as of April 2016) than SMART has taken to begin its service. But the Denver Metropolitan Transportation District was also developing several other train lines that are up and running, as well as two other lines that have firm start dates this summer.

The A Line cost $1.2 billion, which is much more than SMART ($428 million so far). Both systems were developed slowly, over a number of years, surviving financial challenges during the recession. The A Line covers 23 miles and SMART covers 43 miles. Both use two-car (“married pair”) trains that carry quite a few passengers sitting and standing, 318 for SMART and 340 for the A Line. SMART trains have the flexibility to add a third car. The A Line trains can add up to a maximum of four “married pairs” for a total of eight cars.

Both trains have a reported top speed of 79 miles per hour. The train systems have a roughly similar number of stations (10 for SMART, 8 for the A Line). Both systems accommodate bicycles. Some SMART trains will offer snacks and beverages, which the A Line does not. SMART will have Wi-Fi, which the A Line does not.

How much?

And then there’s the fare issue, which has generated a lot of comments from SMART’s supporters and critics. The key SMART dollar amounts are $11.50 (one-way full fare from the stop closest to the Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa to central San Rafael) and $9.50 (one-way full fare from central Santa Rosa to central San Rafael). By comparison, the A Line’s one-way full fare from end to end is $9.

Both trains will offer discounts for almost everyone, including students, seniors, very young passengers (ages five and under ride free), Medicare recipients, disabled persons and veterans. Both have lower fares for traveling within limited “zones” along the routes.

But I don’t think the proposed fare structure is SMART’s biggest issue. In the next Open Trench, I’ll explore some major differences between SMART and Denver’s A Line, and the challenges created by those differences.

Hint: 144 daily trains versus 30.



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