SMART train: Answers to promise and criticism

Published Sunday, August 24, 2008, by the Marin Indpendent Journal

By Dick Spotswood, RailPAC Secretary, Mill Valley

THE BIG ISSUE on the November ballot in both Marin and Sonoma counties is the passage of Measure Q, a one-quarter cent sales tax to fund construction and operation of a commuter train between Cloverdale and Larkspur.

A similar effort led by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District failed in 2006. It carried Sonoma County with almost 70 percent of the vote, but its relatively weak 57.5 percent positive showing in Marin caused it to narrowly miss the needed two-thirds super majority, garnering a 65.3 percent “yes” votes in the two-county district.

Before the campaign gets under way, it’s time to look as the accuracy of some of the promises made by SMART as well as complaints emanating from its opponents.

* Will SMART solve the traffic jams on the freeway?

The simple answer is no. There is no realistic solution to the perpetual rush-hour traffic jam. Even widening Highway 101 will not do the trick. Suburban highway gridlock is a nationwide phenomenon caused by a land-use model based on single-family homes sprawled over a wide area. What SMART can do is provide an auto-free alternative.

* SMART will only help Sonoma. Yes and no. The biggest effect of the commuter train will be to take Sonoma-residing workers to their jobs in Marin. As long as Marin refuses to build much low-priced housing, its labor force needs to live somewhere. Many logically choose more affordable Sonoma. It’s in Marin taxpayers’ interest to facilitate the commute for workers essential to the county’s economic health and to do so in an
environmentally sensitive manner.

* There are other less costly solutions. The reality is the retail clerks, office staff, restaurant workers and building trades employees who live in Sonoma County and form the backbone of Marin’s economy can’t telecommute. A separate busway costs almost as much as rail and will, like SMART, run through some San Rafael and Novato backyards and cause noise. Futuristic dreams such as a Jetsons-style monorail will be far more expensive than
rail even in the unlikely event that their technical aspects are perfected. Remember, Buck Rogers technology costs big bucks. Anyone who claims their proposal will not cost taxpayers a cent is either a charlatan or hopelessly naive.

* SMART is 19th century technology. Untrue. The Europeans, Japanese or Chinese are all expanding both their commuter and long-distance rail lines to 21st century standards. Modern rail systems are regarded worldwide as an
environmentally sensitive way to move large numbers of travelers. It’s the single-passenger petroleum-propelled auto that represents the technology of the past.

* Will anyone ride SMART once its in operation? That is a fair question with no definite answer. Will the trains run empty or will long-term spikes in gas prices boost patronage past SMART’s projections? Proponents of new rail systems tout ridership successes and opponents emphasize failures. If the numbers are substantial, the naysayers will disappear. If they tank, the North Bay will never hear the end of it. Of course, when the Golden Gate
Bridge was proposed, some claimed that few would ever pay a toll to cross a highway bridge.