For all the grumbling about how the Bay Area is sclerotic when it comes to ambitious transportation projects, trains are enjoying something of a resurgence. High-speed rail seems inevitable, BART opened an extension to Warm Springs with further infill stations planned, Caltrain electrification seems likely, the much-delayed Central Subway chugs along, and Muni may yet extend the F-Market streetcar to Fort Mason. Down south, car-choked Los Angeles plans major subway expansions along its Purple Line ahead of the 2028 Olympics.
The rail-scape is impressive. While U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier talk about building another Bay crossing for vehicular traffic, perhaps the time is right to relieve overcrowding and delays with a second Transbay Tube instead. That idea sounds farfetched, but the county that famously declined to participate in the original BART system — Marin — now has a functioning train running from downtown San Rafael to Sonoma County Airport in one hour and seven minutes.
It’s SMART, which stands for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. With 10 stations and five fare zones, the line largely parallels Highway 101 as a low-carbon alternative to the traffic you can now watch as you pass by. I’ve ridden it on two separate occasions, and overall, the feel is much closer to a proper railroad than to BART, with more amenities than Caltrain. (In fact, it’s very similar to the Long Island Rail Road that I grew up riding into Manhattan.) There are snack bars on board, run by a nonprofit called Becoming Independent — they also sell beer and wine, for what it’s worth — and many seats are arranged around tables.
Every car in the rolling stock contains room for 24 bikes, and although the wifi signal is quite poor and the lead car’s bell seems to clang more than two-thirds of the time, it’s a very comfortable ride. There’s a sticking point for getting there from San Francisco, though. Until the planned 2019 extension south from San Rafael is complete, riders will need to take a ferry from the Ferry Building and transfer at Larkspur Landing to a free, not-entirely-easy-to-find shuttle bus to San Rafael. That sounded to me like the ideal conditions for missing a train, but on both rides — one on an ordinary afternoon, the other the day after Thanksgiving — everything operated exactly on time and my multinodal adventure was basically frictionless. One one return trip, I’d missed the last ferry so I transferred at San Rafael to Golden Gate Transit’s 101 bus, which was fine if utilitarian.
This project has been a long time coming, says Debora Fudge, six-time mayor of Windsor and longtime SMART board member (she’s currently the president). People were wary, too. Sales taxes are what fund the line, and the measure required two-thirds approval in both Sonoma and Marin counties. Marin, Fudge says, required extra persuasion.
“Depending on which county you’re talking about, there’s always been 30 percent that were pretty skeptical that a) we needed a train, b) that it would make any difference, and c) that people would ride it,” she tells SF Weekly.
Passes found their way into the hands of some of the more prominent skeptics. In a sort of low-stakes conspiratorial chumminess, Fudge mentions that she has pictures of some of them on the train “smiling from ear to ear.” Less than four months after regular passenger service commenced in late August, trains are running on time, with revenue projections in line with estimates and overall usage higher than initially forecast, owing to seven times the projected weekend ridership.
“People are impressed with the quality of the trains and how clean they are and how well they’re kept up,” Fudge says. “And they’re impressed with being able to travel through both counties on a known schedule, which you can’t do with traffic anymore.”
SMART runs on existing freight track, restoring passenger service to a region from which it’s been gone since 1958 — the height of the freeway boom. After the extension to Larkspur, the line’s eventual northern terminus will be Cloverdale — which already pays for it through sales taxes — with infill stations in Novato, Petaluma, Windsor, and Healdsburg. Windsor, in particular, has been planning for this for years, having built its train station in 2007, just before the recession that depleted the counties’ coffers so drastically that SMART’s launch date was pushed back for years and forced to occur in phases. (There were other delays as well, largely owing to mechanical failures on the test trains and upgrades to the century-old tracks to comply with federal safety standards.)
Apart from reducing traffic and establishing a template for smart growth around the various cities’ downtown cores, SMART found itself in an unlikely role shortly after it opened. When fires tore through Santa Rosa and elsewhere in early October, roads weren’t always the best option for people getting out of harm’s way.
“It can be a necessity to transport people when freeways are closed,” Fudge says of the train. “The freeway was closed up here during the fire, and there were some people evacuated with suitcases on the train. We’d only been open six weeks.”
While the widening of the two-lane sections of Highway 101 to include a third lane soldiers on, other transit advocates have noticed SMART’s success. Elected officials from an association of Central Coast cities rode the line to suss out the viability of connecting Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz by local rail.
“All the rail agencies, up-and-coming or in service, really work to help each other,” Fudge says. “A month ago, the state issued a statewide rail plan and we’re in it — not only for our original corridor, but they want us to go east to meet the Capitol Corridor at Suisun City.”
That would be the 168-mile Amtrak line that runs from San Jose through Oakland’s Jack London Square and Sacramento all the way to Auburn. SMART owns the right-of-way for a future spur along Highway 37 leading from around Novato to the Napa River, and it would have to purchase the rest — something the state can help make possible. (SMART will first go to Cloverdale as planned, Fudge emphasizes.)
Still, in spite of the region’s progressive politics and the romance about streetcars and transit that goes seemingly hand-in-hand with the migration back to central cities more generally, SMART was a hard-won achievement in a car-centric locale.
“We’ve got way more people riding on weekends than we expected,” Fudge says. “It’s local people traveling between cities, going to lunch in different cities, elderly peope who can’t drive anymore are going between the two counties.
“They’re really learning how to transfer to buses to get to San Francisco or get to the Larkspur Ferry,” she adds. “People here are learning transit because they haven’t had transit. I’m watching them learn schedules and meet ferries and they’re so excited.”