Despite recent setbacks, Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit is confident it can deliver
Written by Marc Albert
Smart is restoring more daily runs of its Diesel-multiple-unit trains as the pandemic eases photo credit: (Credit: Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit)
Just as its Larkspur station opened, making San Francisco commutes viable, half a world away, a mysterious ailment started sending people to hospitals.
After an initial jump, ridership faltered, then plunged.
"We just opened that segment in January of 2020, we had our two best ridership months in January and February, and then of course in mid march, everything abruptly stopped."
That's Heather McKillop, chief financial officer of Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit.
As the region closed down, passengers vanished.
Now, more than a year later, with the COVID pandemic easing, SMART is restoring more runs and offering discounts.
It's now operating13 weekday round trips and six on Saturdays. Staffing and funding shortfalls are keeping the rails vacant Sundays. At least for now.
It's doubtful SMART will replace 1.4 million vehicle trips this year, something promised in the 2008 ballot argument, but McKillop sees tailwinds building, at least in terms of ridership. Rising fuel prices, returning congestion as workplaces reopen, coupled with discounted fares, should lead more locals to give the train a try. Denser pockets of residential and workplace development near stations should help in the long run.
Meanwhile, although funding to extend SMART to Cloverdale is tied up in lawsuits, a key hurdle may disappear with a pen stroke.
"There's an earmark in the currently introduced transportation infrastructure bill for the Healdsburg bridge, and if that ends up staying in there, that is a huge benefit for the project."
McKillop is confident voters will re-authorize a quarter cent sales tax that supports SMART before it expires in 2029.
A proposed second line, from Novato through Napa, connecting with Amtrak at Suisun City, was included in California's long-range rail plan.
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