San Rafael drivers grapple with SMART complications
Traffic moves along Fourth Street near the SMART line in downtown San Rafael on Friday. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
By MATTHEW PERA | email@example.com
PUBLISHED: November 30, 2019 at 10:59 am | UPDATED: November 30, 2019 at 11:01 am
The crawl through downtown San Rafael traffic has become even more mind-numbing at times, some drivers say, with the arrival of the SMART train’s extension to Larkspur.
The railroad began testing its 2.2-mile extension between downtown San Rafael and Larkspur during daytime hours on Nov. 17, running trains without passengers along that southernmost stretch of track. When the testing began, there was a noticeable increase in congestion, some drivers said.
“It’s just brutal,” said Daniel Stevens, who lives and works in San Rafael. “It puts us at a standstill.”
Though testing is set to wrap up next month, the traffic interruptions caused by trains running through San Rafael’s downtown aren’t going anywhere, city officials said, with passenger service to Larkspur expected to begin at the end of the testing period.
“This is what San Rafael is going to be experiencing in the months and years to come,” said the city’s public works director, Bill Guerin.
When the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit trains pass through downtown San Rafael, they cross Second and Third streets, which are among Marin’s busiest thoroughfares, in addition to Rice and Andersen drives. Gate arms block those intersections “well before a train actually passes through a crossing,” Guerin said, and the arms reopen the intersections after the train is safely out of the way.
“Each time the train passes, the gate arms are down from one minute to as much as three minutes or more,” Guerin said in an email, noting that the gates stay down for longer when trains pass in each direction in close succession, which happens several times each day. “This has a significant impact, especially during periods of high traffic volume.”
Beginning Jan. 2, a new schedule for the railroad is set to increase the amount of times trains pass through San Rafael, up to 38 weekday trips from 34. Trains are set to depart stations every 32 minutes during peak commute hours.
City officials, in collaboration with SMART, continue to tweak the timing of traffic lights in order to minimize the disruption caused by trains. But some disruption is inevitable, said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who is president of SMART’s board of directors.
“We have about 60,000 cars crossing Second and Third (each day),” Phillips said. “So the train is going to interrupt some of that flow.”
But SMART’s general manager, Farhad Mansourian, said that drivers complaining about traffic in San Rafael are wrongly blaming the train.
“The notion that we are affecting congestion in downtown San Rafael is false,” he said. “It’s just that simple. It’s been congested since before SMART was there.”
For some, the train represents a major step toward a future in which North Bay commuters are less reliant on cars. With the rail line extension, commuters can hop on a SMART train as far north as the Sonoma County Airport and ride to the Larkspur station. A roughly eight-minute walk will take them to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, where they can board a ferry to San Francisco. Eventually, SMART plans to extend its rail line farther north, with stations in Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
But critics of the rail line say that it’s not used enough to significantly reduce the number of cars on North Bay roads. On average, about 2,800 riders use the railroad each weekday, and about 850 use it on a typical weekend day, according to Mansourian.
The Larkspur extension is expected to increase ridership, but Mansourian said it’s difficult to quantify how many more riders will begin using the train. A 2014 environmental assessment predicted the Larkspur extension would increase ridership by about 231 riders, from 5,218 to 5,449, by 2035.
“It’s just so ridiculously unbalanced between the people that use it and the people that don’t,” Stevens said. “It really lowers the quality of life for all of us that don’t.