Valley to Valley: linking SMART and regional rail

The dream of urbanites across the central Bay Area, as they gaze out towards the golden hills of the Marin Headlands, is BART. They share that dream with the suburbanites who stare back at the picturesque view of San Francisco. That it didn’t happen is now simply a fact of life in the Bay, but we need not live with this fact.

Two weeks ago, I tackled the science of traffic congestion: why it happens and the damage it does to our transportation system [1]. Last week, I examined the best way to cope with congestion – an anti-congestion toll – and how to craft anti-congestion policies with an eye toward equity in Marin [2].

Yet an anti-congestion tolling plan works best when there are effective alternatives. Golden Gate Bus is, when it doesn’t face traffic, a fast and efficient mode of transportation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t run often and it runs into traffic frequently, especially within The City. As well, transfers between it and other long-distance transportation systems like BART and Caltrain are poor at best. Marin and Sonoma residents, then, don’t have viable alternatives to driving if their destination isn’t downtown San Francisco.

The plan in a nutshell

SMART South, as I call this plan to differentiate it from the SMART that is currently under construction, consists of the completion of the SMART system, the upgrades needed to operate at eight trains per hour per direction, and the upgrades, construction, and new trains needed to run SMART south to San Francisco and as a subway under Geary Boulevard.

This will include electrification of the existing line ($125 million [3] for 39 miles of track), pushing SMART north to Healdsburg and south to Marin City ($537 million [i] for 40 miles of surface track), rebuilding the Alto Tunnel ($60 million [4]), tunneling from Marin City to the Golden Gate Bridge ($850 million [ii] for 1.7 miles of tunnel), retrofitting the bridge ($392 million [5]), tunneling from there to the Geary Boulevard Subway ($1,365 million [ii] for 2.7 miles; the Geary Subway segment would be built separately from this project) adding passing track to the existing and new surface line to allow for higher frequency ($705 million [i] for 52 miles), elevating the downtown San Rafael track ($93 million [ii] for 0.6 miles of track), finishing the bike path from Marin City to Cloverdale ($5 million [i]), adding the Corte Madera/Larkspur, Mill Valley, Marin City/Sausalito, Vista Point, and Presidio stations ($500 million [ii]), and buying Caltrain-compatible bi-level electric trains to allow for a much and more frequent longer line ($654 million [6] for 38 3-car trains). There are also $250 million in miscellaneous costs associated with finishing the SMART line as promised. In total, this comes to about $5.5 billion for an effectively-new 85-mile system or about $65 million per mile. That’s quite a steal for American construction costs.

Passengers would be able to transfer at Union Square to BART and Muni’s under-construction Central Subway, and at the Transbay Terminal to Caltrain and high-speed rail. Depending on how the second transbay tube is built, passengers would be able to move on either to downtown Oakland or south to the Oakland Airport and Fremont without transferring.


The short of it is that anti-congestion charges on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (RSRB), Golden Gate Bridge (GGB) and the Novato Narrows could be leveraged into $1.4 billion [iii]. A 0.4% sales tax in Sonoma, Marin, and San Francisco could be leveraged into another $1.3 billion [iv], for a total of $2.7 billion raised locally. Regional, state, and federal monies cover about half the cost of major transit construction projects in California, and that’s the balance of the project. Ongoing operations & maintenance would be covered by fares, tolls, and sales tax income as well as state and federal support. The gritty details of all this, including a speculative financing plan and how to calculate anti-congestion tolls, will be in an upcoming post for the people who are truly interested.


SMART South as envisioned would be built alongside a secondary transbay project extending Caltrain and some kind of heavy rail subway across the bay to Alameda County. These would happen regardless of SMART South, so its value is really in connecting the North Bay with the South and East. How many riders would use that link?

Last year, I examined what higher frequencies could do for the base SMART system’s ridership and arrived at a conservative 12,100 daily trips. Adding the southern Marin, downtown Novato, and Presidio stations would push the ridership up to 22,000 using the same model [7].

Using 2014 Census data, it appears that roughly 7,500 people live within a half-mile of SMART and SMART South stations and work within a half-mile of BART or Caltrain, or vice-versa [8]. While only half of them are likely to commute via transit after this extension, additional riders would come from outside the half-mile radius, and commutes only account for about 20 percent of all trips. Wrap all that up and we have another 50,000-80,000 trips per day, depending on fares, travel time, and transfers. Given that this range comes from a model that assumes no anti-congestion tolls - and that such tolls boost transit use – I’d lean more towards the higher than the lower number. That would nearly double the capacity of the Golden Gate and northern Highway 101 corridor.


So for about $5.5 billion, paid for with new tolls and a 0.4% sales tax, SMART could dip south into San Francisco, fully tying Sonoma and Marin into the regional and statewide rail systems. It would provide a viable alternative to the freeway. Alongside tolling, it would make congestion a thing of the past in the North Bay, making deliveries more timely and commutes much more reliable.

This is merely a draft, of course, and should be subjected to more rigorous study. The political difficulties of yet another sales tax and yet-higher tolls are apparent. But SMART South is eminently attainable. With a little ingenuity and a little optimism about the future, it could be our next stop.


[i] Estimate from existing SMART costs.

[ii] Estimate from a variety of peer projects.

[iii] Assuming borrowing is on the same terms as MTC’s toll-related bonds and is spaced according to construction needs.

[iv] Assuming borrowing is on the same terms as SMART’s sales-tax backed bonds.

Works Cited

[1] David Edmondson, “The Science of Traffic and Its Awfulness,” The Greater Marin, July 3, 2017.

[2] David Edmondson, “Let’s Get into the Weeds: A Congestion Charge Plan for Marin,” The Greater Marin, July 10, 2017.

[3] Stephen A. Gazillo, “A Planner’s Guide to Fixed Guideway Electrification Projects,” Transportation Planning, November 2005.

[4] County of Marin, “Investigative Study to Begin on Alto Tunnel” (County of Marin, January 10, 2017).

[5] Charles Seim, Mark Ketchum, and T.Y. Lin International, “Golden Gate Bridge Mass Transit Feasibility Study” (San Francisco, CA: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, October 1990).

[6] Railway Gazette, “Caltrain Signs Double-Deck EMU and Electrification Contracts,” Railway Gazette, August 16, 2016.

[7] Transportation Research Board, “Elements Needed to Create High Ridership Transit Systems,” Transit Cooperative Research Program (Washington, DC: Federal Transit Administration, March 2007).

[8] Center for Economic Studies, “Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics” (Washington, DC: United States Census, 2014).