Question and Answer

QUESTION: Should we support the SMART train even though it’s not electric and has relatively limited capacity (5,000 on the weekdays and 2,000 on the weekends)?


ANSWER: One of the key components of an efficient transit system is population density, and one of the best ways to increase population density is around a rail system. This has been demonstrated over and over again. While Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) may not dramatically reduce vehicle travel or CO2 emissions it has the potential to become the backbone of a rational, well-designed transit system for the North Bay. If it is developed correctly it will have an effect on land use and population density, long term. So, the value of SMART is directly linked to the region’s vision for an efficient, effective, sustainable transit system.


From a GHG emission reduction standpoint, what needs to happen in the transportation sector is "shift from single occupant vehicle to walking, biking and transit." A well-integrated rail and bus system is considered the "meat and potatoes" of transit. To the extent that our urban areas can be made transit-oriented, mixed use population centers, a bus/rail/path system will give the lowest cost per ton of GHG reduction in the transportation sector.

That said, it seems like the current SMART train proposal could be a little smarter. The present proposal for Diesel Multiple Unit vehicles sets the technological bar too low.  With increasing petroleum prices (read:  diesel prices) a diesel train that starts running in 2014 and hauls 5000 people per day during the week and 2000 on weekends isn’t the best investment to attract the commitment and build the enthusiasm required for an integrated North Bay transit system. Even if biodiesel was used there isn’t an adequate supply to cover even a majority of SMART’s projected fuel demand. The most successful examples of public rail systems are electric.    

Of course an electric system would be significantly more expensive, and this is the excuse the SMART board of directors use for rejecting this alternative. They are concerned, and rightly so, that the taxpayers may not approve the quarter cent tax increase necessary to cover the current train proposal, let alone the three-quarter cent tax that may be required for an electric system (this is just a guess on our part). Under the current proposal costs are estimated at $440 million, with the 70-mile bicycle/pedestrian pathway alongside estimated at an additional $90 million. The SMART board and most of their supporters feel that the train would be rejected if additional funding for electrification were sought in this initial launch.

A number of countries are well ahead of us in creating efficient transit systems. These are useful models to study as we decide where to make our next investments and how best to utilize increasingly limited financial resources. In less than 40 years Japan created a 1,360 mile high-speed rail network that links nearly all of their major cities. Late arrivals average just 6 seconds. The 322-mile line between Tokyo and Osaka carries 117,000 passengers a day. Europe’s first high-speed line, between Paris and Lyon, began operation in 1981. They now have more than 3,000 miles of high-speed rail in operation, with another 1,700 miles coming online by 2010.

These countries had a vision and are now in a much better position to move towards a sustainable reality. Their high-speed electric trains have the potential to be run on green electricity, which would essentially zero out their emissions.  While it’s hard to envision making an investment comparable to Japan and Europe, we believe we should absorb the costs now, instead of asking our children to foot the bill.