Why I support SMART
Jeffrey D Rhoads RA LEED AP
January 27, 2020
In retrospect, promises made by Measure Q proponents proved difficult to deliver. In the face of the Great Recession, the 1/4% sales tax approved by the voters was inadequate to construct a railroad and bikeway from Larkspur to Cloverdale. The proponents were overly optimistic on revenue projections and underestimated construction and operating costs. In spite of this, much has been accomplished.
SMART’s General Manager, Farhad Mansourian, inherited an underfunded mandate, promises he didn’t make and rail vehicles he didn't select. And yet by assembling a capable team, SMART has constructed and placed in operation the system we have today. The GM was able to secure $323 million of capital funding from external sources to make this possible. This was more than the sales tax revenue generated under Measure Q. Some may question Mr. Mansourian’s style, but not his accomplishments!
It’s extremely difficult, costly and time consuming to build new infrastructure projects of any kind in the US. High labor and material costs in a heated economy, layers of often conflicting regulations and permitting requirements, obtaining the approval of the Federal Railroad Administration, and satisfying the needs of numerous cities and stakeholders are only a few of the challenges the SMART team faced.
They were also required to implement the first Positive Train Control system for a new passenger railroad in the US. Saving millions of dollars by locating a drawbridge in Texas and restoring it to as new condition for the Petaluma River crossing, is just one example of their resourcefulness. What the SMART team achieved in a short time with few hiccups is remarkable.
Much has been said about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). SMART opponents say that current diesel locomotive GHG will remain static and that busses and automobiles will improve due to transition to electric propulsion. No consideration is given to switching SMART’s fuel source to renewable biodiesel or transitioning to electric power. Motor vehicles also produce pollution not associated with the railroad, including friction products from tires and road dust.
SMART calculates that the trains operate with 1/3 less GHG production based on their current ridership VS automobiles. This number will improve as ridership increases.
Tailpipe GHG is only part of a more significant issue: Reducing our large ecological footprint. SMART and the bike highway will help by enabling people (particularly younger and older people) to choose to live without automobiles in walkable communities with smaller apartments along the rail/bikeway corridor. Apartments with common walls use less energy for heating and cooling and contain far less embodied energy. They also contain fewer resource-consuming possessions than our suburban single-family homes.
We are faced with a decision on the Stay Green Keep SMART initiative. I support Measure “I” because extending the existing 1/4% sales tax allows the capital improvement bonds to be refinanced at a more favorable interest rate. It’s like replacing an old mortgage with one having a lower interest rate and a longer term to reduce monthly payments. This provides an additional $12 million a year. These funds will support operations and help attract capital improvement dollars to build out the system.
SMART has been operating for just over two years. It’s in its infancy. Commuter ridership is rising and will increase with the Windsor and Larkspur extensions.
Let’s keep our train operating and make it better. Let’s get to Cloverdale and complete the bike highway. Let’s elevate the rail line through central San Rafael and extend it to a new ferry/rail terminal at the water’s edge west of San Quentin.
Jeff Is president of Argonaut Company a San Rafael based town planning and architecture consultancy. He also serves as the Executive Director of Resilient Shore a San Rafael nonprofit project addressing sea level rise adaptation and flood risk.