SMART to San Francisco would be a touch expensive

Building a rail line to San Francisco is the Holy Grail for many in Marin’s commuting public. By 2035, there will be an estimated 80,000 commute trips across the Golden Gate Bridge every day, and both San Francisco and the SMART district counties could be well-served by a rail line going across the Golden Gate Bridge. It sounds like a fabulous idea, but would it actually be worth the expense? Let’s pencil this out.

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District Route Location & Structure Plans: Marin Line General Route Plan & Profile (1961)

1961 BART Marin Line Plans. Click to enlarge.

SMART, presumably, would run along the old NWP railroad tracks to Sausalito, duplicating the old rail route. From there, would proceed as the old BART plan did, tunneling through the Marin Headlands to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, becoming a subway thereafter to run under Geary Boulevard before terminating at the Transbay Transit Center.

The Marin section would cut through Larkspur and Corte Madera, running at surface, bypass downtown Mill Valley and most of Sausalito before diving beneath the hills just south of Marin City. Larkspur to Sausalito costs would likely be higher than the rest of the rail line, as the old rails have been torn up for trails. Given that this segment would include renovations to the Alto Tunnel, a cost of $174 million – $20 million per mile – is not unreasonable.

The train’s path through some very low-density residential neighborhoods would likely mean significant neighbor opposition. While running along Highway 101 would resolve this issue, the right-of-way isn’t wide enough to accommodate a double-track system and would therefore be significantly more expensive.

Sausalito to San Francisco would be a major undertaking. The Marin Headlands tunnel would be a major project on its own, but crossing the Golden Gate Bridge would add additional engineering complexity. Given that the rest of the project would involve new tunneling, from this point on the line’s cost will balloon to between $500 million and $1 billion per mile. The line would continue on the BART alignment once it reached the city, hitting its first station at the Presidio, serving Industrial Light and Magic, before tunneling to Geary. Total cost for the Sausalito-Geary segment would be between $3 billion and $6 billion.

The Geary Boulevard alignment is important for this plan. Muni bus service along the Geary route is over capacity and is the busiest bus route in the Bay Area. The neighborhood has begged Muni for a subway but to no avail, as costs are extremely prohibitive, but from a transit perspective the project would be worthwhile. Here, SMART has a choice. It could stop at a Geary Boulevard transfer station, probably on Arguello or Masonic and allow passengers to transfer to Muni, or it could continue onward in the Muni tunnel.

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District Route Location & Structure Plans: San Francisco and Vicinity General Routes Plan (1961)

1961 BART San Francisco Plans. Click to enlarge.

There are costs to either choice. Forcing passengers to transfer to Muni far from the Financial District would make the route less attractive to potential riders, but partnering with Muni to build the subway would be extremely expensive. Despite the cost, an inter-agency partnership would ensure the tunnel’s construction, as neither agency would need to shoulder the whole burden. If SMART chooses to go on, it would proceed along Geary with stops along the way until Market Street. The cost for this segment would be between $1.1 and $2.2 billion.

At Market, SMART again faces a decision. It could proceed forward to the Transbay Transit Center, or it could stop at Union Square and allow passengers to transfer to the Central Subway or BART and finish their trips. The cost of the crossing under Market would likely be at least $1 billion but would provide a significant improvement in service to passengers, allowing a single rail ride from Santa Rosa to California’s High Speed Rail network, Caltrain, and a number of regional buses.

The total cost of a San Rafael to Transbay Transit Center line, using these numbers, is between $5.3 and $9.6 billion. This doesn’t count the cost of electrification, a requirement for subway stops. That adds about $346 million, for a total cost of between $5.6 and $9.9 billion

The problem for this line is that ridership just is not there. Already, 28% of commutes to San Francisco from Marin are made by transit. If SMART’s numbers hold out through a whole system, only another 10% of ridership – about 8,000 – would shift to the train. This would bring Marin in line with the mode share for San Mateo-San Francisco commuting at a total cost of $400,000 per new rider, minimum. To make it as cost-effective as SMART’s initial operating segment, 40,000 new riders per day would have to switch, an an astronomically high number for Marin.

Building SMART to San Francisco would be nice, but in a world of limited resources it would be a waste. Golden Gate Transit’s routes are in desperate need of upgrade. Geary needs a subway along its whole length. The Capitol Corridor and ACE already run through major cities and need upgrades. And heavy investment in bicycle infrastructure would do more to take people out of their cars than a new railroad.

SMART’s current alignment is good to move people through the North Bay, and that’s enough. The political and financial burden of extending SMART to San Francisco would just be too much.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

26 comments to SMART to San Francisco would be a touch expensive

  • Perfect example of a project that would be viable were it not for America’s absurd transit costs.

  • Erik J

    Have there been any studies exploring a possible Richmond-San Rafael Bridge alignment? That route would provide the shortest and conceivably least expensive connection between BART and SMART.

  • Emmanuel

    You know i’ve been thinking about this issue. Of course i’m not Professor transportation planner, but we need to ask ourselves what is it that we are trying to solve? I have a list of options
    1. SMART extension to DT SF
    2.a. SMART to lakspur ferry, with a smooth and very convenient transfer
    2.b. instead of lakspur, how about San Quentin? seems like a better place to have ferry in the first place.
    3.a the use of the san rafael-richmond bridge corridor.
    3.b. Instead of SMART, how about BART? Is there a demand for Berkeley and Oakland workers from Marin and Sonoma?

  • @Erik J

    I don’t think there’s been anything official, but MTC board members have spoken about it like it’s SMART’s Phase 3, so I think it’s more likely than a DTX.

    Such an alignment could pose problems with the bridge, as I’m not sure it has the width on he eastern span to fit tracks without wrecking the shoulder.

    If this is Phase 3, however, SMART needs to plan for it and align its Larkspur station in the Marin Country Mart parking lot so it can loop around the south side of Cal Park.

    There’s always the risk of Marinites feeling screwed again. Not many commute to Contra Costa or Alameda, though plenty of folks from Contra Costa commute to Marin.

    On the plus side, the DMUs will be compatible with mainline rail vehicles. SMART could interline with Amtrak’s routes to the Delta, then, and boost frequency out to downtown Antioch.

  • Erik J, the 1970 Golden Gate Corridor study found that the existing Richmond-San Rafael Bridge was not strong enough to add rail and proposed a new parallel bridge to carry the rapid transit line. Building a new bridge unfortunately raises the price considerably, and going east is also very out of the way for the main transportation demand to San Francisco.

  • Emmanuel

    You know what, why not? SMART to san francisco should be pursued. It would really benefit Sonoma and Marin counties. We want a clean Bay area, not some train to ferry system. It would have some serious benefits for the Bay area.

  • Emmanuel

    I look at some pictures throughout the Bay area and i often see air pollution. We need solid transportation systems, not some disjointed system. A solid transit system could induce ALOT of drivers that contribute to air pollution and regional congestion. Our cities need to be a little cleaner.

  • What would the time savings of rail be, compared to an upgraded Larkspur – SF ferry? Worth the extra billions?

  • emmanuel

    I think there would be no time savings. I was wrong in thinking that a DT SF alignment would be the best option. No time savings and wayyy to expensive. I think a ext. to SF might be way too much. We have some expensive standards. The next best option w

  • emmanuel

    ould be to have a very fast and convenient transfer with a ferry. I mean fast.

  • […] SMART to SF — How Feasible Would it Be? (Vibrant Bay Area) […]

  • Shotwellian

    A lot of the focus of the SMART – SF transfer has been on the (eventual) connection via the Larkspur Ferry, but as an SF resident who often takes public transit to / from the North Bay, I think the connection to the express bus in San Rafael will be more important.

    GGT 101 takes 44 minutes from San Rafael to SF Civic Center. The Larkspur Ferry takes 30 or 35 mins to the Ferry Bldg. Add the extra time it’ll take on the train from SR to Larkspur and the much farther transfer to the ferry, and it’ll likely be faster to take the bus unless you’re going somewhere directly on the SF waterfront. Van Ness BRT, which will be done around the same time as SMART, will also shave a few minutes off the bus ride. To me this suggests that SR SF BRT–dedicated transit lanes on the freeway and bridge, timed transfers to SMART, extra nice buses with more bike racks–is the best way to get people the rest of the way to / from SF.

  • greg

    I think you are dramatically underestimating the potential ridership for this line. If it were built according to the old BART plan, the vast majority of riders would come from within SF. All of the bus lines heading downtown from the neighborhoods within walking distance of Geary – the 1, 38, 5, 31, 21 – are well over capacity during commute times, and if given the option a big chunk of those riders would surely switch to rail. Maybe those within-SF riders don’t count from Marin’s perspective, but the aggregate cost of this line would be far less than $400k / rider if all potential riders were included in the calculation.

  • david vartanoff

    Adding BART to the GG Bridge is feasible. See Chapter 5 of Paying the Toll by Louise Nelson Dyble for the history of the tailored engineering excuse driven by politics claiming otherwise.

  • mike

    The SMART train is a great plan as is, and bringing it to SF is an intriguing idea. Rather than climb up 200+ feet to the GG Bridge and take up space along the bridge roadway, keep the rail low in Sausalito and cross the Golden Gate via an underwater bridge that spans the strait at an elevation that allows ship traffic to pass over. Or just bypass the strait and connect Bridgeway in Sausalito with a street like Divisadero in SF via a tube and continue underground to Geary. Would be great to have a tunnel/subway connection btwn the northside of SF and Geary so there’s an alternative to going over the large hill of Pacific Heights. Don’t worry Pacific Heighters, we would not need a stop in your hood. It might even reduce traffic on Divisadero and Scott Streets.

  • […] Running @smarttrain to SF too expensive but rails to Larkspur for the ferry connection should be top priority!… […]

  • @greg

    I’d hate to subsidize a Marin project with SF ridership. Without the Geary segment, Marin’s part would still cost up to at least $3 billion, not including rolling stock & upstream investments.

    While that does bring things into the realm of possibility – 12,000 new transit riders needed, minimum – it would still be better for SF to just build the subway out Geary without SMART’s involvement. Not only would that make the regulatory issues easier (blending an FRA-compliant heavy railroad with a non-compliant light railroad) but it would address the real transit need of the city.

    And this uses the lowest numbers. On the high end, SMART would need to bring in 75,000 new trips per day just for the Marin segment.

  • Sean

    I think the current train to ferry is the best option, with Marin fighting even a 1% increase in population, MTC would be insane to give them that much money.

    The next best thing would be to close San Quentin, build a medium density transit village with the SMART terminus and new ferry hub. The point is in deeper water away from the fragile marshland. This marshland requires high speed ferries to slow down to not churn up sensitive land. Then high speed ferries could then get to SF in 20-25 minutes instead.

  • Kyle Huey

    In other words Marin is not dense enough for cost-effective transit. Hardly surprising.

    If we’re going to build a subway under Geary Muni should go it alone. Serving the Richmond beyond Presidio Avenue is far more important (and cost effective) than building a train line to Larkspur. And that’s without taking into account SMART’s DMU FRA compliance issues.

  • Emmanuel

    What about SMART to Richmond? It would follow the rail corridor that is on the shore all the way to Oakland, and then through the same transbay tube that is being planned for HSR so that it’s terminus will be at the “Grand Central” of the west.

  • Erik J

    Another idea is the train ferry. SMART would roll on a specially designed ferry at Larkspur without any unnecessary transfers, and passengers can disembark normally via the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

    The Key System used this solution to cross the Bay before construction of the Bay Bridge. In fact, its modern equivalent is the intercity Vogelfluglinie between Germany and Denmark.

  • Emmanuel

    So it seems that we are trying to force a purpose upon the SMART system; take commuters to downtown San Francisco. How about Oakland? Isn’t Oakland a major city? Do people in Santa Rosa really want to commute all the way to San Francisco via bus or car to the train station, then to Larkspur ferry and then board a ferry? That seems way to much. I say put a ton of jobs in downtown Oakland and have SMART go to Oakland.

  • Emmanuel

    One question that i keep askking myself is: Is San Francisco the center of the San Francisco Bay Area? Does the SFBA have a “center” or “downtown”. Considering BART’s decision to decentralize it’s own system by having rail go to San Jose, it seems there will now be TWO “centers” of the SFBA. I say that’s fine, but instead of TWO, why not THREE? You know what other city I am talking about. Oakland! Each city can serve a purpose for the greater SFBA. Each city could be the center of a hub-and-spoke rail system, which in my theory is the best, most cost-effective, most efficient and easily maintained type of rail system there could be.

  • Emmanuel

    One question that i keep askking myself is: Is San Francisco the center of the San Francisco Bay Area? Does the SFBA have a “center” or “downtown”. Considering BART’s decision to decentralize it’s own system by having rail go to San Jose, it seems there will now be TWO “centers” of the SFBA. I say that’s fine, but instead of TWO, why not THREE? You know what other city I am talking about. Oakland! Each city can serve a purpose for the greater SFBA. Each city could be the center of a hub-and-spoke rail system, which in my theory is the best, most cost-effective, most efficient and easily maintained type of rail system there could be.

  • Emmanuel

    A hub-and-spoke rail transit system. Whats the Hub? Jobs! White collar Jobs! Expensive a** rail should be used exclusively for workers. To me, a transit rail system that is decentralized is a waste of money. So let’s think of transit systems based on the hub-and-spoke. New York? Boston? That’s right. Atlanta, Philadelphia, DC? right again. And of course Chicago. Just some ideas. What do you guys think?

  • Roderick Llewellyn


    Such a plan does not seem unreasonably expensive for what is gained. As a San Franciscan, I would be delighted to be better able to visit Marin and Sonoma via transit. The problem is not so much the cost, but the opportunity cost: what is lost, what is foregone, if we spend the money on this plan versus some other?

    The basic issue for all Bay Area transit is this silly notion of “equity” which means rewarding automobile-dependent regions with equal transit funding to more dense regions. The result over the last 30 years has been growth in BART at the expense of urban systems such as AC Transit. Put more crudely, the region chose to take urban black people’s bus transit away to give wealthy white suburbanites a faster ride into downtown SF. What’s worse is that these riders, few in number anyway, will not use transit for any other trips besides commuting. Furthermore, the BART extensions are absolutely useless in the reverse direction; like, if I rode BART to Dublin-Pleasanton, what would I do there? Admire the parking lot and the BMWs parked therein? There’s no there there! Such extensions are useless anyway if you don’t have a car, since the surrounding transit network is poor. So they do absolutely nothing to reduce car dependency and thus don’t help social justice.

    The bottom-line result has been atrocious inefficiency, absurdly high dollars being spent for each new rider. Europe does not have great transit because they spend much more than we do. They have great transit because they spend much more WISELY than we do. They don’t waste precious resources serving areas whose very land-use guarantees total automobile dependency.

    That’s the problem with this plan. It’s not that it’s a bad plan. It’s that every dollar spent in Marin or Sonoma will attract 1/10 the new riders that the same dollar spent in San Francisco or Oakland would. Consider MTC’s 2035 plan. It boasts of 130 miles of “new rail”. But where are those miles? Almost all are SMART, which will never carry more than a tiny fraction of what SF Muni’s much shorter rail system does. What is proposed for San Francisco where the highest ridership and dollar efficiency can be found? MTC proposes one lousy mile! This is a direct result of MTC’s domination by suburban land-development interests.

    What we should do is prioritize every proposal according to cost efficiency (ideally counting social costs such as pollution avoided). By such ranking, we’d abandon all the suburban rail extensions which will always perform dreadfully and concentrate on raising the urban core’s transit mode share from its current absurdly low numbers… which are due largely to spreading the money too thinly, and concentrate instead on building a world-class system in the core. Only then should we begin to think about improving transit in low-density suburban areas which are inherently transit-hostile.