Durable Growth, Transportation

The train is coming, are we ready?

SMART train in shop

SMART train in shop

I’ve written before about Friends of SMART.  The citizen advocacy group was active in the initial formulation and voter approval of SMART, the coming commuter rail system for the North Bay.  They’ve continued to provide encouragement and occasional constructive criticism as the SMART moved into construction and now nears operation.

I became involved with Friends of SMART when our positions aligned in the discussion about where the second train station in Petaluma should be located.  I then played a role in their battle to allow an effective bicycle/pedestrian crossing at Jennings Avenue in Santa Rosa.

I enjoy hanging out with the folks at Friends of SMART who give liberally of their time to help improve their communities.

Now, it also turns out that being a member of Friends of SMART has perks.  The SMART General Manager recently contacted the Friends of SMART president and invited him to bring the membership for an early morning tour of the SMART shop, followed by a preview train ride from the shop to the downtown Santa Rosa station and back.

Friends of SMART (photo by Chris Stevick)

Friends of SMART (photo by Chris Stevick)

Thus, I found myself gathering with thirty other folks on a grey morning earlier this week at the SMART yard near the Santa Rosa Airport.

As a civil engineer, I’ve been around a fair number of industrial sites, from hydroelectric powerhouses to steel fabrication yards.  And yet there was still something uniquely impressive about the SMART shop with its sparkling newness, its array of tools and spare parts waiting to spring into full use, and the visual incongruity it offered, with the hulking mass of a train ready to carry passengers but confined for the moment inside a building.

Equally impressive was the SMART staff who spoke with us, comfortably and familiarly citing the various sections of the CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) with which rail systems must comply, the procedures SMART was implementing to assure that compliance, and anecdotes from the world of railroading that justified the strict regulatory approach.

SMART staff

SMART staff

Although the train ride was more within the everyday experience of many people, and therefore less new and different, the improved train technology was still impressive.  From the smoother acceleration and braking to the lack of clacking over rail joints, the changes were incremental but noticeable.  Also, compared to the aging interiors of the BART cars, the new and better appointed SMART cars were a very different experience.

But, as positive as the experience was, the view from the rolling train still gave me pause.  Almost a year ago, in writing about the location for the second Petaluma station, I used these words, “If we can’t facilitate the type of places where people would live who would be likely to ride the SMART train, then the train may be an engineering success, but a financial and social failure ….”

Those words were directed at SMART, but can equally well apply to many of the cities along the SMART alignment and also some regulatory agencies.  During the short ride taken by Friends of SMART, we saw the downtown Santa Rosa station where any new housing is still years away and the North Santa Rosa station where the Jennings Avenue crossing remains blocked by fencing, forcing potential riders into a longer and uncomfortable walk, while the Public Utilities Commission ponders a decision.

Aboard the train

Aboard the train

Looking beyond the extent of the preview ride, Rohnert Park is just getting underway with transit-oriented development.   Petaluma is even further away, with the exception of a project that is more suited to car-oriented families than to bike/ped/transit-oriented millennials or seniors.  Nor, with the exception of local transit service, has Petaluma made much progress with parking or improved pedestrian/bicycles routes.  And Novato, despite a late decision to add an eventual downtown station, will greet the first SMART train with stations that have few homes within walkable distance.

To be clear, the cities don‘t have the sole responsibility for some of these deficiencies.  Other agencies, including SMART itself, share some culpability.  But spreading the blame around doesn’t make it less of a concern.

Earlier this week, I had lunch with a career hotelier.  Our conversation was about the steps leading up to a hotel opening.  He made the point that having the hospitality operation complete and integrated on opening day set a tone that could carry through the life of the hotel, but that making up for a disorganized opening day could take years.

I don’t think commuter trains are quite as prone to the ”Day One Equals Destiny” equation, but starting strong still matters.  With stories rolling in about low ridership on new rail systems elsewhere in the country, many of them related to a failure to encourage land use that would provide passengers for the rail line, it’s a concern that the North Bay will have so little development in place for SMART’s opening day.

Also, low initial ridership will embolden the critics of the SMART who have predicted few passengers, perhaps allowing them to further slow the needed strategic decisions.

Promoting land uses to integrate with the coming rail service was a task that needed to be tackled on a timely basis.  Unfortunately, the window for a timely response has already closed.  But sooner still remains better than later because the train will arrive whether or not we’re ready.

When I next write, I’ll take note of a recent poll that showed a third of all Bay Area residents thinking of moving elsewhere.  I don’t believe they really mean it, but the poll still tells us something to which we should be listening.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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