SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian Previews Next Steps for Passenger Rail Service
Touting the success of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transport (SMART) since opening for service in August 2017, General Manager Farhad Mansourian gave Sonoma County Alliance members and guests an update on this North Bay passenger rail service on February 5, 2020 as well as a preview of things to come.
Under his leadership, SMART let its first contract in 2012 and continues to expand service with the goal of completing a 70-mile route from San Rafael to Cloverdale.
“In the past two years SMART has carried 1.7 million riders, 170,000 cyclists and 6,000 wheelchair bound passengers,” said Mansourian, who served as the director of public works for Marin County before joining SMART in 2011. “Bikers ride to our stations, take the train and then ride to work.”
“When coming to this position I asked a number of people where I should go for advice in Sonoma County. They told me the Alliance was the place. I approached SCA leaders who told me “go get it done and don’t pay attention to politics.”
He said in the early years the region was just coming out of the Great Recession and SMART put many to work who needed jobs. As of today, all of the stations have been built in the City of Novato, but there is still more to be done in Sonoma County – finding funding for a second Petaluma station as part of an exchange for property owned by SMART.
Work has started on extending SMART approximately three miles from the airport station to Windsor, with other stations planned for North Petaluma, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
The Windsor segment is fully funded for the $65 million cost of this project and is expected to be completed in 2021. Funds for additional extensions to Healdsburg and the northern terminus at Cloverdale are also being sought, including the cost of a new Russian River bridge which Mansourian said will be “very expensive.”
He also observed that construction and project costs have risen while revenues have declined. He said SMART raised $298 million to leverage an additional $330 million in matching funds for the Healdsburg/Cloverdale portion. However, he noted that this will not be enough, and called for a YES vote on Measure I at the ballot box in March.
If two-thirds (66.67%) of the Sonoma and Marin County voters approve, this measure on the March 3, 2020 primary ballot will renew the current one-quarter cent sales tax to fund SMART for another 30 years, providing an additional $40 million a year until March 31, 2059. The existing quarter-cent sales tax was approved in November 2008.
Looking to the future, Mansourian said the State Secretary of Transportation contacted SMART a year and a half ago about the possibility of extending SMART from Novato to Suisun City at I-80 in the East Bay. This project would include the use of an existing roadbed that SMART owns from Routes 37 and 121 to the Napa River. If implemented, this east-west link would connect SMART passengers to AMTRAK for trips to Sacramento and beyond to the national rail system.
He said a California state fund paid SMART for a study of a proposed high-level system. During February, a state team planned to meet with SMART officials to review plans for system design and an environmental review.
According to Mansourian, ridership was up in January 2020 and 71,974 passengers took SMART roundtrip (that otherwise could have contributed to clogged highways) with a train running every 32 minutes. On weekends, trains operate earlier in the day and align with the ferry schedule to allow for leisure and recreational trips to and from San Francisco as well as within Marin and Sonoma counties.
He noted that it takes time to build ridership, despite what some critics say about little being done to reduce gridlock. In response to a question about how ridership is counted, he said each one-way trip is counted separately.
He compared SMART’s startup to BART’s early years. He recalled that when BART was two years old, it only carried 4% of what it is transporting now – some 450,000 passengers today. In addition, he said when the Larkspur Ferry was just two years old, it was only carrying half of what it is reporting in 2020.
“Think of what we (SMART) can do as we grow!” Mansourian said. “We are offering a special Larkspur Ferry price of $12 each way from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. This month our board approved a special 50% off rate for low income riders, similar to our 50% off rate for seniors, youth and passengers with physical disabilities. Today some 54% of riders get a discount, with the average fare under $6.” SMART charges $11.50 for a one-way regular ticket on its existing 45-mile line.
At the same time, Mansourian said SMART and its partners have built 24 miles of pedestrian and cycling pathway with an additional 8.8 miles fully funded and planned for construction. As of 2020, SMART serves over 80% of the populations of Marin and Sonoma counties.
The Sonoma County Alliance recommends that residents of Marin and Sonoma counties vote YES on Measure I.