A bill now on the Governor's desk envisions extending the SMART Train to Willits and creating a 300 mile hiking trail from San Francisco Bay to Humboldt Bay. People who ride it seem to love it, but they're not the only ones paying for it now and in the future.
Under North Bay Senator Mike McGuire's bill, the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit could eventually span more than 300 miles to the Mendocino town of Willits, even giving it a chance to haul North Coast freight.
"There's real value in utilizing property next to the railroad right-of-ways. Our communities are desperately looking for housing and commercial interface; great spot for it, great use then of public transportation," said train historian Greg Phillips. Phillips thinks the SMART Train is an idea whose time has come. "I think it will become more and more popular as the service is recognized for what it can provide," said Phillips.
Others, however, do not think in those terms. "If you look at the ridership, it's paltry. It's a little over 2.000. 2,000 a day on a typical week day," said long time critic and economist Mike Arnold who also said SMART Train is destined to mediocrity without two major things, "A huge increase in population and a concentration in jobs in some central city." Unlike BART, says Arnold, SMART, a system confined to the suburbs, does not connect directly to San Francisco where it's a short hop from the terminal to work. "The extension to Larkspur would generate an additional 131 riders a day. Based on the calculations from data in the National Transit Data Base, that SMART's submitting to them and their budget, it's costing taxpayers about $27 for every passenger trip," said Arnold.
While Marin and Sonoma are not exactly large employment centers they are increasing become larger population centers. And, part of the significance of that is that was something they thought about at the time they created this system. "I think it's great. I do love the cost and I also love the ambiance of the train. You can ride in the hospitality car. You get to see people, you get to connect, you get to be present in the moment," said rider Alicia Nichols of Sonoma State University. "Time. Time is of the essence. You know, time means more than money I think," said Santa Rose rider Mickie Caro.
When BART started, it faced similar criticisms but did have the advantage of connecting suburbs to the very core of jobs.