Aug. 17--For the past year, county residents have been able to climb aboard commuter trains for the first time in decades, and many are hooked on SMART's green-and-silver cars that glide on 43 miles of track that link Marin and Sonoma counties.
The $500 million Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system that launched Aug. 25, 2017 is off to a solid start, reporting 700,000 passengers in its first year of service to date. The system has also carried more than 60,000 bicycles.
"I had been commuting for 24 years from Petaluma to San Rafael by car and now I take the train and it's amazing," said Andrea Balf, an appraiser who works for the county of Marin assessor's office. "It brings piece of mind not having to drive. I have been taking it since Day One. People are very, very happy to be on board. It's rare to see someone who is not in a good mood when they are on the train. People are laughing even if it is 6:30 in the morning."
The trains have enjoyed rock star status. The site of trains in Marin has made the system a magnet for the curious who stop to take pictures of the shiny cars as they travel a route between downtown San Rafael and the Santa Rosa Airport.
Inside, groups of regular passengers have gotten to know each other and even socialize once off the rails.
"There is a group of us who have become friends and we will go out and have cocktails," said Balf, who said her drive between Petaluma and San Rafael would take as much as 90 minutes, especially in the evening, when she had to drive through the Novato Narrows to get home. Her trip is now about half an hour, not counting the time it takes for her to get to the train station.
The train is also visited by the curious. Aman and Linda Kahn of San Francisco waited for a SMART train at the Civic Center station to go to lunch in Santa Rosa. They could have driven, but wanted the train experience.
"We just wanted to take the train for a nice ride," Aman Khan said. "It's our first time. We always drive. This will be nice."
Said Linda Khan: "There is something magical about a train."
It wasn't easy to get that magic back to Marin.
When the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, people abandoned the trains and ferries in droves and began using buses and automobiles. Ridership dropped and the electric rail system shut down and was dismantled in Marin. In the late 1950s, plans for BART were mapped out.
But dreams of BART in Marin unraveled in December 1961, when San Mateo County pulled out of the plan, saying costs were too high. With San Mateo out, the tax base to support the BART plan was weakened. Marin's small population could not provide adequate tax to support the project, and it was asked to pull out.
But in the 1970s, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Authority and the Golden Gate Bridge district took control of the existing Northwestern Pacific Railroad right of way. It was turned over to SMART when the agency was established by the state Legislature in 2002.
That meant SMART's biggest asset was in hand -- the rail right of way, valued at more than $1 billion.
County voters rejected rail tax measures in 1990, 1998 and 2006, but in 2008 approved Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax over 20 years to help fund the train.
"We are very pleased with how we have done for a first year," said Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager. "We are giving people an option. We are giving quality of life back for people who take the train. We have had 700,000 riders, and that means 700,000 fewer car trips over the year and we are building on that."
Mansourian said there is more to do.
"We can get better. We are working hard on closing a gap we have in the evening commute service; we want to add weekend service and we want to get the Larkspur extension done," he said. The latter is due in late 2019, along with a downtown Novato station.
Marin Supervisor Judy Arnold, a SMART board member, said she is pleased with year one.
"It's gone very well and we are learning a lot of things along the way," she said. "How can we make it better?"
The fare structure is being looked at, with possible reductions to make the train more attractive, Arnold said. One thought is to make the train free to bring in more commuters, she added. And while building the system north to Windsor and Cloverdale in Sonoma County is a top priority, she noted the state is interested in having SMART go east.
A California State Rail Plan outlines SMART making its way from Novato to Fairfield-Suisun or near Vallejo, then hooking into Capitol Corridor service. The 170-mile Capitol Corridor extends to Auburn and San Jose and links into other transit lines.
The report released last fall provides a framework for planning and implementing California's rail network for the next 20 years and beyond that will result in a "coordinated, statewide travel system," according to the state.
There have been challenges over the last year. Just six weeks into service, two of its stations were closed as fires swept through Santa Rosa. No one could access the trains. But those were opened soon after, and SMART provided free service as a way to help the community.
Two people have taken their lives in suspected suicides by crossing in front of the train; one was in January in Santa Rosa and the other occurred on Monday in Novato. And on May 31, a truck crashed through rail crossing arms and was struck by a train near Santa Rosa. SMART generally has six trains on the rails, with two cars in reserve. With one less vehicle, some trains that had seen a set of three cars have been cut to a set of two. A three-car train can hold roughly 500 passengers, a two-car train 318.
The train still has its vocal critics.
One of them, Richard Hall of San Rafael, said SMART's first year "wasn't successful at all."
"They were at least 25 percent below their weekday ridership projections -- below even the most conservative figures," Hall said. "To paint it as a success is so misleading, it's strategic misleading, it is deception. They've met none of their targets.
They haven't reduced traffic congestion, and anyone with a head on their shoulders can see that traffic has gotten worse."
The train's weekday average ridership ranges from 2,600 to 3,000, less than the 3,092 that had been projected for weekdays on that stretch, according to SMART. Ridership on weekends has been about 1,000 a day, far more than the projected 300, said Jeanne Mariani-Belding, a SMART spokeswoman.
Beyond the rail, an adjacent bicycle and pedestrian path was to be part of the planned SMART work. But bike advocates say SMART has fallen short.
"The numbers speak for themselves: SMART has built 43 miles of rail and seven miles of multi-use pathway, with other agencies building an additional 3.5 miles of pathway," said Jim Elias, executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.
Of the $28 million of Measure Q funds promised to the pathway, only $7 million has been spent on it, Elias said.
"While we applaud SMART's efforts to win outside grant awards, those funds are limited and highly competitive, and they often compete with other worthy active transportation projects," he said. "MCBC continues to urge that the pathway be given the same priority as the rail."