SMART or dumb?
By David Bolling
Thu, October 9, 7:04 PM
Before the end of this century, you’ll be able to take a clean, energy efficient train from Cloverdale to Larkspur and from Santa Rosa to New York.
The county will be laced with jitney routes carrying passengers to rail terminals, one of which could be as close as Schellville. Most working people will no longer commute to San Francisco because most of the jobs will be strung along the Highway 101 corridor. The freeway will be less crowded, the air will be clean, and bike paths shadowing the rail lines will provide healthy, carbon-free transit options all over the county.
That’s one version of reality extrapolated from the vision painted by proponents of SMART, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit system that would be funded by a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot. But here’s another vision.
A $500 million boondoggle that will swallow available transit funds for a rail line to nowhere that no one will ride, while cheaper more flexible transit options serving all of Sonoma County, including the Valley of the Moon, will be co-opted and foreclosed. Instead of a network of jitney busses, commuting motorists will clog the roads getting to the few rail heads where insufficient parking will be available for a trip that will end up costing too much and taking too long to get them efficiently to work.
Is SMART smart? Or dumb? That’s the basic question presented to voters by Measure Q, the third ballot measure to attempt to generate the necessary two-thirds vote to fund the SMART train.
But critics have long contended that SMART ridership estimates are inflated and that the train will never pay for itself. Some critics, reviewing the daily biking/hiking estimates for the parallel pathway, call them absurd.
More to they point, they say, SMART is asking voters to invest half a billion dollars over 21 years in technology and centrally-concentrated infrastructure they believe will be obsolete before the tax expires.
Former county supervisor Ernie Carpenter has called SMART the “silly train,” and signed the voter’s pamphlet argument against Measure Q. Also signing was Joan Vilms, a land-use and open-space expert who argues that “SMART won’t pick people up where they are or take them where they want to go.” She claims the money could be better spent on SMART vans and busses on non-fixed routes that are more neighborhood based.
Vilms also worries that SMART will spur explosive growth along the 101 corridor and said land speculation is already taking place along the route.
Even more disturbing, according to Vilms, is that passage of SMART will signal destruction of a wild stretch of the Eel River.
That’s because to help finance the project, SMART has entered into an agreement with the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) which owns the old Northwestern Pacific track extending north from Healdsburg.
The NCRA, in turn, intends to contract with a reborn Northwestern Pacific Railroad to carry freight on the line and that freight, claims Vilms, will have track priority over passenger service.
More alarming to her is the prospect of the freight service being used to haul gravel mined from the bed of the Eel, in a remote section not otherwise accessible. Vilms, a longtime advocate of river protection and a founding member of Friends of the Russian River, argues the impact of gravel mining on the Eel could be devastating.