Eyes on the Track: SMART’s Larkspur Extension
4:20 PM PDT on September 23, 2019
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Testing has already begun on the last 2.2 miles of the SMART train from its current terminus in San Rafael to the new Larkspur station (seen in the lead image) from where passengers can transfer to a ferry to San Francisco. By the end of this year, for the first time in over a half-century, there will be a way to get from San Francisco to inland cities in Marin and Sonoma, even during rush hour, without getting stuck in traffic or riding many miles by bicycle.
"We're still on schedule to open by the end of the year," said Matt Stevens, a SMART spokesman, during a Streetsblog tour of the extension. "We're also in the process of delivering a new schedule ... to fill peak-service gaps." There's also a new station slated to open in downtown Novato.
Stevens said they've heard from customers that gaps in rush-hour service were just too long (the trains run only every half-hour in the rush-hour peak direction, and much less frequently at other times). They have acquired two new two-car trains to supplement those gaps. A bigger challenge, he said, is hiring operators, who are in demand nationally as new rail systems open and expand. Stevens said the plan is to coordinate with the ferry, so that every train has a connection to San Francisco (he later demurred on committing to that, although he said it remains the goal).
If it actually happens, it may be a first in the Bay Area: two major transit operators coordinating schedules. Streetsblog reached out to Seamless Bay Area, which is advocating for unified fares and schedules across the region, and they said the only other connections they're aware of are free connecting shuttles to Caltrain and a few other services. "There are plenty of dedicated shuttles that are designed to align, including Marguerite and many in San Mateo County run by commute.org," said Friends of Caltrain and Seamless Bay Area's Adina Levin. "VTA's Next Network redesign several years ago included a number of realignments of bus and light rail to connect to BART. Those changes are slated to roll out when the Berryessa service opens; the latest I'd seen was end of this year."
Of course, as anyone who's followed the development of the SMART train knows, the transfer to the Larkspur ferry, even if schedules are coordinated between train and boat, is less than ideal--there's a pedestrian bridge and a bike/ped path between the ferry and the train station, but it's at least a ten-minute walk.
Also, for those who don't want to transfer to the train from the ferry, the bike path along the ROW is less than ideal once it crosses north into the city of San Rafael. Thanks to lobbying from the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC), there's a great bike path from Andersen to Rice, but then it just ends, spilling cyclists into a busy road with painted sharrows:
"The next phase of that project, from Rice to 2nd St, is planned and partially funded. We're hoping it will be built in 2020," wrote the MCBC's Bjorn Griepenburg, in an email to Streetsblog. The MCBC wrote an article about the struggle to get that segment completed. Basically San Rafael has $1.2 million for the next phase but needs another ~$2 million to finish it, Griepenburg explained.
We hope they'll get that last segment built, because it's a major impediment to last-mile connections to the ferry and beyond. And the rest of the path is so nice, it's a shame that it falls short between San Rafael station and Rice Drive.
Additionally, pedestrian crossings between Second and Third streets in San Rafael (and between the San Rafael bus and train stations) are pretty awful, with lots of beg buttons, long waits, and "no pedestrian crossing" signs. When the Larkspur extension is operational, we can only hope pressure will mount to improve them.
All of that said, the Bay Area's newest rail system already has some impressive ridership numbers--it hit over a million riders less than two years after it opened. And ridership is expected to grow dramatically with the extension, schedule improvements, and the ferry connection to San Francisco.
It's great that the diesel-powered SMART train has proved so popular, but it's also sad to think that this train restores only a small fraction of the electric rail network that once served Marin and Sonoma. The old drawbridge just south of the Larkspur station (in the picture below), is a tantalizing reminder of that. Maybe someday passenger trains will once again run all the way to Sausalito, as they once did via this bridge.
Meanwhile, the Marin IJ is reporting that residents of San Rafael are already suing over the noise of the SMART train's horns, now that overnight testing of the new extension has begun.
More photos of the extension below.