Benefits of Rail Service

Getting the North Bay Back on Track: The Seven Benefits of Railroad Transportation
by Steve Birdlebough, Chair, Friends of SMART
Summary below

Rail transportation is a key element of better mobility and a more resilient economy in Marin and Sonoma Counties.  For many years it has been clear that we cannot solve traffic problems simply by paving more land.  In 2002 community leaders asked the Legislature to create the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) District to help resolve critical traffic, land use, and energy problems by restoring passenger rail service on the historic Northwestern Pacific right of way between Cloverdale and Larkspur.  The SMART Project offers travelers a new option in the corridor without bringing more cars and parking lots into downtown areas.  The entire 70 mile system, with passenger equipment and track upgrades can be operational sooner and with less environmental impact than many of the highway widening projects now under way.

The return of railroad service to the North Bay is expected to provide seven important benefits to the residents of Marin and Sonoma counties.

Benefit One: Get People to Work on Time

The most visible benefit of the SMART Project is a reliable way for people to get to work without undue stress during rush hour.  Trains can travel on time regardless of road conditions because they operate in a separate right-of-way.  The railroad offers a smooth, quiet ride with spacious comfort, including ample seats and leg room.

Benefit Two: Reduce traffic tie-ups on the Highway and in Cities

By serving five thousand of the trips that are now made on Highway 101 each day, the SMART Project reduces traffic pressures that would otherwise exist during the peak commute hours.  Five thousand cars would occupy a lane of traffic for over two hours.  In the near term, moving these trips to the train will not only shorten the peak periods of congestion, it will reduce the number of people using highways that parallel the freeway.

Benefit Three: Prevent Intolerable Future Traffic Congestion

Projects under way to add car-pool vehicle lanes on Highway 101 will provide at most temporary relief from congestion in the corridor.  Sonoma and Marin Counties are expected to have a combined population that exceeds that of San Francisco within 20 years, and more capacity is essential to cope with the resulting traffic.

Benefit Four: End the North Bay’s Complete Dependency on Automobiles

It is important for the Region to break out of its near total dependence on automobiles.  The transportation consultants who have studied the SMART corridor expect the train to take some 5,000 car trips per day off the highway, and this shift in travel habits can begin to reverse the trend toward ever more vehicles per household. 

Benefit Five: Grow the Economy While Preserving Open Space

The attractive rural character of the region deserves to be complemented with better access to jobs, walkable cities, and homes in every price range.  Passenger rail service will help meet all of these goals.

Benefit Six: Conserve Energy & Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Restoring rail service costs much less per mile than building additional freeway lanes.  We estimate that residents of Marin and Sonoma counties now spend more than $4 billion per year on transportation; the addition of train service will add less than %1 per cent to these costs.  A train also offers substantial operating savings per mile for the transit system, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Benefit Seven: Improve Service for Bus Riders

Rail service will attract more people to transit by its speed, convenience and comfort, allowing bus operators to expand and optimize their services for discretionary users.  More intense bus service can permit better schedules throughout the day, to the benefit of all transit users.  Cities that establish new rail systems report that transit ridership increases significantly, and overall bus services improve.

Conclusion

The return of railroad transportation offers fundamental benefits to communities in the North Bay.  Train service will enable people to get to work on time and in comfort, it serves as an antidote to traffic pressures, and it can lead to more choices about when and how to use cars, bicycles, and bus services.  Trains are also good for the economy and the environment.  Like libraries, parks, and water supply, trains are an important community asset.  It is time to restore this asset in Marin and Sonoma counties.

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