As the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) corridor nears opening day this fall, the City of Novato is having buyer’s remorse on the placement of its stations. Although SMART has already built two stations in Novato, the Novato City Council recently approved adding a third station to serve Downtown. While Downtown Novato warrants a station, the City Council’s mismanagement of station planning will result in a redundant expenditure of five million dollars while diluting the quality of rail service for the City.
The Downtown Novato station serves as a case study for short-sighted regional planning. After voters approved the 70 mile rail project in 2008, SMART worked with cities to develop plans for station locations. Whereas other cities like Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and San Rafael located their stations within their downtowns to help support walkable, transit-oriented development, Novato rejected a Downtown station location in favor of a more remote San Marin/Atherton station in 2009. At the time, the San Marin/Atherton station was preferred because it served an office park, home to Marin’s largest employer, the Fireman’s Fund, and had more parking. In contrast, the Novato City Council viewed a lack of parking at the Downtown Station as a fatal flaw even though it provided a more walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible location for more than a quarter of the City’s population who lived within one mile of the station.
Times have changed. Last year, the Fireman’s Fund vacated the office park adjacent to the San Marin/Atherton Station, leaving the station without any real anchors to attract ridership. Meanwhile, the revitalization of Downtown Novato has continued.
However, there’s no good option to add a Downtown Station to the SMART system. SMART cannot add a third station in Novato because it would slow the system beyond its proposed 30 minute headways, and no funding exists for a Downtown Station as the San Marin/Atherton Station has already been built. Building the Downtown Station, therefore, presents two bad options: closing a brand new station before it opens, or splitting service between the two stations. The Novato City Council chose the latter option, which will result in hourly headways at each station. Since frequency fuels ridership, splitting service will make SMART less useful and discourage its use.
SMART presents an exciting opportunity for Sonoma and Marin counties to provide alternatives to driving and support smarter growth. However, the City Council’s decision to split service will set up both stations for failure. While closing the San Marin/Atherton station is a tough pill to swallow, it presents a more sustainable option if the City is serious about the Downtown alternative.