How the SMART train is building a new Northern California

That’s the question I asked myself in Larkspur when arriving on the ferry from San Francisco one recent morning.

I was on my way to Petaluma and was eager to experience California’s newest and most spectacular ferry-to-train connection: the Golden Gate Ferry to the SMART train, the light rail line that runs through Marin and of Sonoma.

SMART, while little known statewide, offers great inspiration to Californians who want more infrastructure that connects us, even in this age of division. It’s also a window into where California continues to grow – on our metropolitan borders, outside of places like Fairfield, Riverside, and Escondido (San Diego County).

SMART opened in 2017, offering 43 miles of service from San Rafael to Charles M. Schulz Airport in Santa Rosa. It was built for peanuts – only $400 million. (For comparison, a 12-mile extension of light rail from Glendora to Montclair in Southern California will cost $2.1 billion). An extension south of San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry opened just before the pandemic hit, crushing demand for trains and ferries.

But attendance is bouncing back. And SMART is working to expand. He adds a second Petaluma station and creates a micro-transit service to transport passengers a mile from his airport station to the actual airport.

It’s also getting bigger, in a way that might better adapt to a post-pandemic future.

SMART has begun construction on an extension of the Highway 101 corridor to Windsor, although it has halted that work pending a state Supreme Court ruling on the validity of the toll increase of the bridge financing the project. Eventually, SMART plans to take the train further afield – to Cloverdale, at the gates of Mendocino County, 80 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

SMART also studied a new line east of its Novato-Hamilton station through North Bay to reach the Interstate 80 corridor at Suisun City, which is slightly closer to Sacramento than San Francisco. There, SMART would share a station with Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor service, which connects the state capital and San Jose.

A feasibility study suggests such a line could be built quickly – in six years or less – and possibly for as little as $1 billion. That’s good news, because climate change makes making new connections in North Bay important. The state said Highway 37, the region’s main east-west artery, could be “permanently submerged” by 2040 due to storms and rising sea levels. already closed due to flooding.

With all of these projects, SMART seeks to serve both California visitors and Californians who may be less likely to live in the middle of our largest cities but still want to be connected to them. Indeed, transit projects like SMART and the ACE train, which crosses the Altamont Pass and extends south and east through Modesto to Merced, are helping to make Northern California what some call it “the megaregion”. This design imagines the “Bay Area” extending to Lake Tahoe or Fresno.

Of course, serving such a large area requires making smart links accessible to real people. I couldn’t find such a thing at the Larkspur ferry.

The experience was mortifying because I had bragged about SMART that day to my companion, a fellow Swiss-Swedish journalist. After decades of traveling the world by train, he’s a train snob, and he started making little jokes as soon as I turned left off the ferry, wandered to the edge of its parking lot – and that I couldn’t find the train. Unable to locate the platform using the navigation app on my wayward smartphone, I started heading into a tunnel used by cyclists and pedestrians. Still no train.

Eventually we wandered around the right side of the car park, crossed the busy Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and meandered around a curve in a smaller street, through two office car parks and down a narrow driveway to reach the station. On board, the ride went well, although my European friend asked a driver why the train runs on diesel and not electric (the sagenheimer’s answer: to save money in an America that doesn’t does not invest much in trains).

The good news is that if my colleague ever returns to North Bay, the problem should be solved. After making a few calls I learned that SMART had repeatedly put up sandwich panels and posted signs to show the way from the ferry to the train and back – but these keep being stolen or taken away by the winds. As of this writing, they are adopting a more permanent solution: vinyl decals will be applied to the roadway to mark the safest route.

These decals are called breadcrumbs and you can follow them, slowly and carefully, into California’s future.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

Jennifer C. Burleigh