Is the SMART Train Easing Highway 101 Traffic in Marin and Sonoma?

In an article posted by KQED and written by Katarina Schwartz, ”

Driving to work every morning on congested roads is no one’s idea of a good time. And the commute on Highway 101 through Sonoma and Marin counties can be an especially laborious journey during mid-week rush hour. In an attempt to relieve congestion, provide greener transportation options and offer more ways for people to travel, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train opened its first stations in 2017. Since then, it has been building out its system, starting at the southern terminus of Larkspur. Eventually, it will reach all the way to Cloverdale.

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Although the train has been in operation for several years now, this train service is still under the radar for a lot of Bay Area residents. Still, on a recent Thursday morning, the Marin and Sonoma residents who rode the train were enthusiastic about the service.

“I take it every single day that I can because it’s just so much quicker,” said Kelly Smith, who lives in Novato and works in San Rafael. “It’s economical. I get to chat with people on the train. It’s much more relaxing. It’s my favorite way to travel.”

Other riders agreed that riding the train is much more pleasant than slogging through traffic.

“This train corridor, you feel like you’re in Europe,” Scott Warner said. “My health is better, and my mind is better when I get to the office, not having to deal with the jam on the 101.”

The photo is taken inside the train looking out. Inside are seats in siloutte. Outside is a lush marshland with green grass poking out of a shallow body of water. In the distance a yellow hillside with dry grass rises above the marsh.
The views over the marshlands aboard the SMART train as it travels from the Petaluma train station en route to the San Rafael station. (Photo By Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
But do these happy riders mean the SMART train is relieving congestion on Highway 101? That’s what Bay Curious listener Brian Auger, who lives in Fairfax, really wants to know.

It’s a good question, but also a tricky time to answer because in 2024, just a few years after the coronavirus pandemic, traffic and commute patterns have changed a lot.

The short answer:

A Caltrans spokesperson said there is 40% less traffic on US-101 between Larkspur, in Marin, and Sonoma Airport Blvd — an approximate location for where the SMART train line currently ends — than there was in 2019. But those numbers reflect driving at all times of the day and all days of the week, so they are likely more a product of hybrid work environments than anything else.

“Calendar year 2023, SMART carried over 750,000 riders,” SMART General Manager Eddy Cumins said. “The average trip length of those riders is 22.2 miles. So, if you do that math, that equates to 16.6 million passenger miles on the train.”

That sounds like a lot, but to give that number more context, Caltrans said the total annual vehicle miles traveled between Larkspur and Airport Blvd is more than 1.8 billion. In comparison, the miles traveled on SMART represent only the tiniest fraction of all that travel. And for even further context, SMART’s yearly ridership is close to the number of passengers BART carried each week in 2023.

In short, right now, SMART is not making a very big dent in traffic on US-101.

The longer answer:

The SMART train has only been around for a few years, most of them during or directly after the COVID-19 pandemic, which upended ridership and decimated budgets for transit agencies around the region. SMART is actually the only local transit agency to see an increase in ridership during 2023 as compared to 2019 (the last full year before the pandemic).

It’s also worth considering that the system isn’t fully built yet. Transit systems tend to become more useful the longer they’re around. A system like BART has been operating since the 1970s, and other infrastructure has been built around it. Employers have offices near BART stations, other transit agencies provide links to BART, and easy train access can even drive home prices. SMART hasn’t been around long enough to see much of this effect yet.

“We are a small system,” Cumins acknowledged. “We’re not BART. We’re not Caltrain. We have to focus on meeting the needs of the communities we serve.”

To do that, Cumins and his colleagues have been holding listening sessions with community members in Marin and Sonoma to learn how SMART can better serve riders. Right now, the most popular station is Downtown Petaluma and many riders get off in San Rafael or Larkspur. And people who travel on the train with their bikes have been consistent riders, even during the pandemic.

“We noticed a significant increase in bicycle boardings,” Cumins said. “We had some flip seats on the side of the train. We removed those seats in order to create additional bicycle parking.”

They’ve also increased service in the middle of the day, held fare prices low and created a new type of monthly commuter pass that reflects the reality of hybrid work schedules.

“And immediately, we saw a 28% increase in monthly passes,” Cumins said.

Then there were more specific needs, like local teachers expressing the need for transportation when taking school kids on field trips. Cumins said they looked at train capacity and saw they might be able to accommodate this request.

“Off-peak hours, when these kids want to travel, we have capacity there,” he said. “And so between nine and two, they can ride. So we’re now offering free field trips, too, for K-12 students. There was a field trip last week and the kids all wrote us letters thanking the SMART train. And so that’s beautiful.”

A green SMART train car sits at a station platform. The train is on the right side, and the platform is on the left. The platform has a few passengers on it in the distance.
The SMART train began operations in 2017 and continues to expand. (Paul Lancour/KQED)
Interestingly, the ridership of SMART doesn’t follow normal commute pattern expectations. While 60% of rides are in the southern direction in the morning — what you might expect — a full 40% are northbound. Students might explain some of those anomalies. Cumins said about 15% of riders on SMART trains are students heading to school.

“It’s nice, there’s no problems,” said high school student Louie. “When we come home, it doesn’t feel that crowded. It’s mostly in the morning.”

SMART is currently building the Windsor station and has several bike lanes under construction or in the planning phase as well. Part of the agency’s mission is to build out the bike path infrastructure in the region at the same time as it builds the rails, so when the system is complete, it should be a bonanza of rails and trails for residents and visitors alike.

“The one thing [riders] always say is, ‘I cannot believe how clean the train is,’” Cumins said. “The other thing that I hear from people who ride is that the area between Petaluma and Novato may be the most beautiful place on Earth, and it’s a place that you can’t get to unless you’re on the train.”

NBLC CEO Comments on Updates To The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge And West Bound Plans

In an article posted on Mercury News, written by Adrian Rodriguez, he said, ”

Bay Area transportation planners are taking another look at what it would take to open the westbound shoulder of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge for commuter traffic.

The emergency and maintenance lane on the bridge’s upper deck was converted into a bicycle and pedestrian path that is protected by a moveable barrier in 2019 for a four-year trial period.

The controversial path remains open pending a final report that could determine the fate of the test project. Critics, mostly commuters and their employers, say traffic is worse than ever, while supporters maintain the path is a successful multimodal connection between the North Bay and the East Bay.

John Goodwin, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said staffers will be presenting a proposed scope, schedule and cost for preparation of a “design alternatives study” that would include opening the shoulder as a bus and carpool lane during peak hours.

The presentation is expected at the MTC-Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee meeting on March 13.

“More details to come over the next six weeks,” Goodwin said Friday.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” John Grubb, chief operating officer of the Bay Area Council, said of the planned proposal. The Bay Area Council is an influential business group that has been advocating for reopening the third lane for commuter traffic.

“Having a project requires a planning process, and what they’ve agreed to do is start that planning process,” Grubb said.

Warren Wells, policy and planning director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, said his group hopes bicyclists and pedestrians will continue to have access over the bridge.

“We look forward to seeing the results of the design alternatives study,” Wells said, assuming officials authorize staff to move forward with it.

Wells said he expects any new studies to show similar results to a 2021 study that showed the addition of a third lane would require $70 million to $310 million in improvements. However, he said, the potential costs likely have increased.

That study was revisited in a recent report by the Transportation Authority of Marin that detailed what it would take to open the lane. The report was expected to be presented at the TAM board meeting on Jan. 25, but it was tabled because Kevin Carroll, the board member who requested the discussion, was absent.

According to the study, it would cost about $100 million annually to move the barrier twice a day during weekdays to allow vehicular traffic during peak hours. A machine capable of doing the job would cost $1.27 million. The installation of the barrier was $12 million. The cost of removal is unknown.

The report says adding a third westbound lane would reduce travel times by 11 minutes for drivers headed toward northbound Highway 101. However, drivers traveling to southbound Highway 101 would be delayed by three minutes.

The report said it would cost between $70 million to $90 million to reconfigure the western side of the bridge in San Rafael to handle the new traffic flow. Any such projects would require overcoming environmental hurdles lasting several years.

Carroll, a member of the Larkspur City Council, said he’s experienced backups on the bridge himself. He said he didn’t need to wait for the result of the path study to be completed to know how he feels about it.

“My feeling is the sooner it ends, the better,” he said of the pilot path. “What I am hoping to get is, all the elected officials on the board of TAM, how do they feel about it.”

Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters, a member of the boards governing the Transportation Authority of Marin and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said the main issue is that “when we bring more traffic over the bridge it’s going to get backed up in Marin County and it may actually take people longer to get to work than it does currently.”

“So some improvements are needed in Marin and those improvements cost money,” Moulton-Peters said. “They’re not funded so we are looking at HOV and bus lanes as options, and it’s all under discussion.”

MTC and Caltrans are also pursuing a suite of projects — dubbed “Richmond-San Rafael Forward” — that were conceived to shave up to 17 minutes off the westbound morning commute into Marin County.

One of the projects is to remove the toll booths to make way for open-road tolling and an extended carpool lane at an estimated cost of $24 million. That project is expected to open in the winter of 2026.

Other near-term projects include a $5 million Richmond Parkway interchange, transit improvements and more bicycle infrastructure improvements.

Now, TAM officials say they want to hear about those active projects and new proposals from the regional planners leading the charge. Staffers with MTC and Caltrans are expected to give a report this spring.

Brian Colbert, chair of the TAM board and a member of the San Anselmo Town Council, said officials have to balance the needs of all their constituents. He said he is interested in seeing what planners are doing to address backup in San Rafael, too.

“It’s not just about the bike lane, it’s a full, 360-degree view of what’s going on on the bridge,” he said. “We want to look at the congestion of the corridor and what is the medium and long-term outlook of the bridge.”

An average of 115 cyclists use the path on weekdays and an average of 325 cyclists on the weekends, according to commission. The weekday pedestrian average is 15, while the weekend average is 30.

By comparison, more than 80,000 vehicles cross the 5.5-mile bridge on weekdays. Westbound drivers can experience delays of nearly half an hour during peak commute times.

Bay Area business interests say the traffic is an equity and environmental issue that needs to be addressed.

“There is huge support from employers, commuters and residents from both the East Bay and the North Bay to open the third lane on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge,” said Joanne Webster, president and chief executive officer of the North Bay Leadership Council. “The four year bike-ped path pilot did not produce the data, nor the mode shift many were hoping for.”

North Bay Leadership Council Endorses Proposition 1-Vote on March 5th

The North Bay Leadership Council announces its support of Proposition One, also known as Behavioral Health Services Program and Bond Measure   The two-pronged proposition on the March 5th ballot includes a nearly $6.4 billion bond to build 10,000 treatment units and supportive housing.

It also asks voters to redefine how counties spend money collected from a special “millionaire’s tax” already passed by the voters, to allocate a share of it for housing for people with behavioral health illnesses.

Housing and homelessness continue to be top issues for the business community in the North Bay. Employers are experiencing an increase in crime and worried about the safety of their employees and customers from those suffering from acute mental illness and substance abuse. It is our goal to support housing for the unhoused with the goal of placing them in permanent, supportive housing where they can get the assistance needed. Our state needs to prioritize Californians with the deepest mental health needs, living in encampments, or suffering the worst substance use issues. This ballot measure will refocus billions of dollars in existing funds and provide bond funding for housing homeless individuals, those at risk of being homeless, and veterans with mental health or substance abuse disorders.

Another item we are watching closely is the U.S. Supreme Court decision to review a controversial lower federal court ruling that disallows local jurisdictions from banning camping on sidewalks, streets, parks or other public places. We will continue to update you on this item.