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Eye On: A SMART Idea in California

By Lauren Krizel

If any city is looking to get cars off congested roads, reduce carbon emissions, bring in new jobs and economic development, and improve the health of its citizens, San Francisco's North Bay has the right idea. Sonoma and Marin counties—through the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project—are working together to provide rail service along 70 miles of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad with a parallel pathway for bicyclists, walkers and runners.

The SMART corridor runs parallel to Highway 101, the only north-south transportation facility and one of the most congested freeways in the North Bay area. Regular passenger rail service with a parallel trail would provide an excellent alternative, and including the Multi-Use Pathway has been an integral piece of the rail-with-trail project since 1999. The pathway will help people get to transit stations, provide critical maintenance access and enhance community connections. Including this pathway option played a considerable role in gaining support to pass the measure to fund SMART in 2008.


"SMART is a unique project because it will be paid for by the citizens of the counties," says Jack Swearengen, chair of the all-volunteer Friends of SMART. "City governments will help with some things like parking and crossings, but the bulk of the money will be raised by sales tax and fare box revenue." A quarter-cent cent sales tax was passed in 2008 by both counties to raise money for the project. Measure Q, the provision to start work on SMART, passed with a hefty 69 percent of the vote.

The original vision for the project was a rail-with-trail from Cloverdale in Sonoma County to the San Francisco-bound ferry terminal in Larkspur in Marin County. However, due to the recent economic downturn, plans for SMART have changed. "The revenue from the sales tax was nearly cut in half," says Swearengen. "Finally, in December [2010], we had to face the music. We didn't have the money for 70 miles."

Coupled with the decrease in sales tax revenue, the prices for a few features of SMART went up, says Andy Peri, advocacy and outreach coordinator for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC). "Some people wanted to cut the pathway out of the plan completely," he says, "and just focus on building the rail line."

But MCBC, Friends of SMART and other groups—including Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC)—rallied to save the trail component. Sending an e-mail to California supporters in March 2011, RTC helped muster letters in favor of the trail, and that input further stressed how important the pathway was to the overall plan.

The existing, unimproved corridor in San Rafael. 

"That was a big victory for us," Peri says. "The pathway won't be cut 100 percent. One-third of the money is going to be deferred, and SMART, for now, will be about 40 miles instead of 70."

"SMART is exactly the kind of project we want to support," says Steve Schweigerdt, manager of trail development for RTC's
Western Regional Office. "It shares a limited space and provides long trails connected to transit stations and important destinations. Even 40 miles of completed rail-with-trail is unprecedented in California, and I'm sure it will see very heavy use as it passes through scenic countryside and bustling towns."

When phase one is completed in 2014, SMART will run from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. In subsequent phases, when funds become available, the rail line and MUP will be extended north and south. "We've had to think of ways to do more with less," says Swearengen.

Yet even with a slightly downsized plan, the rail-with-trail will offer users critical options for non-motorized travel and public transportation. "People are going to flock to public transit, especially with gas prices ballooning," says Swearengen.

Planners estimate the project will take 1.4 million car trips off the highway annually and decrease greenhouse gases by 124,000 pounds per day. With more than 7,000 expected daily pedestrian trips along the active rail corridor, design plans include careful considerations of user safety. "There will be a chain link fence separating the rail line and pathway to keep casual crossovers from happening," says Swearengen. Other safety features will include traffic lights and push buttons for crosswalks.

For more information, visit the Friends of SMART or call 707.578.9133.


Lauren Krizel is a freelance writer and a soon-to-be graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. She is a runner, and writing about rail-trails has inspired her to become a more avid cyclist.

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