SMART Money Part I: Relative Costs

There is no doubt that SMART is a major investment.  At $404 million, the 37 mile system is the largest single public undertaking the North Bay has seen in quite some time.  (Not to say it does not have competitors: CalTrans is widening and repaving Highway 101 up and down Marin at a total cost of $120 million, but that’s another story.)  Because of that unique position in recent history, the project has no local context, allowing opponent claims that SMART is an expensive boondoggle to go largely unchallenged.  To evaluate those claims, then, we need to place SMART’s costs into the wider scheme of transit projects around the country.  The easiest way to do that is to break each project down to two metrics: cost per mile (how cheap it is), and cost per rider (how cost-effective it is).  Let’s look at both in turn.*

SMART, assuming a final cost of $404 million (PDF) for the initial operating segment from San Rafael to Santa Rosa, will cost approximately $10.9 million per mile.  These costs go to extensive upgrades and repairs to the old rail corridor, stations, trains, a parallel bike and pedestrian trail, and the attendant staff time and reports to go along with all that.  This is relatively cheap for North American transit construction.

SMART is in red. This chart excludes four large projects: New York's Second Avenue Subway at $2B per mile, the Long Island Railroad extension at $1.6B, MUNI's Central Subway at $759M, and Edmonton's Light Rail at $434M.

Out of the 49 projects The Transport Politic has lengths and cost for, SMART is only the 45th most expensive.  The cheaper projects all run along currently active tracks or utilize existing trains, so only minimal track improvements are necessary.  From a cost-per-mile perspective, SMART is one of the cheapest in the country.

From a cost-per-passenger viewpoint, however, things look different.  SMART’s initial segment is expected to draw 4,800 riders per day (PDF), a respectable total but certainly not ideal.  Using that number, we get a much different picture.

SMART is in red. The Transport Politic doesn't have ridership projections for all listed systems, and those are excluded.

SMART’s initial operating segment will cost $84,167 per passenger, the seventh most expensive rail project in The Transport Politic’s database.  This is not to say that its impact will be inconsequential – 4,800 riders would be about 9% the size of the projected Sonoma-Marin commuter base – but just that the cost per rider is on the high end of normal.  To me, the high ratio of riders to commuters means that there just isn’t a lot of inter-county traffic to capture in the first place.  Any growth, then, will most likely happen with intra-county travel.

Sonoma’s cities are trying to boost densities around stations that are currently planned, so ridership intensity should go up.  Dick Spotswood could be (although probably isn’t) correct and the projections might only be half the real ridership.  And, if SMART wanted an intermediate expansion before completing the full line, expanding north to Jennings Road and south to Larkspur Landing – if my back-of-the-envelope calculations are correct – would add about 1,000 riders for $34 million.  At $34,000 per rider, that would be a huge boost to the corridor’s effectiveness.

SMART is not the most cost-effective transit system in the country, but it is one of the cheapest.  Its initial operating segment will capture a good chunk of Sonoma-Marin traffic, and the urban improvements it is sparking will add value far beyond SMART’s farebox.  We now return to our first question: is SMART a boondoggle?  The answer, it seems, is no.


*Note that for this exercise, SMART’s stats are pulled from the most recent ridership report from February and the most recent cost update from August.  All other system stats are from The Transport Politic’s database of rail transit systems that are planned or under construction.


About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

7 Responses to SMART Money Part I: Relative Costs

  1. chris says:

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’ve been covering this since the first time SMART was on the ballot (and failed) and I’ve experienced too many shenanigans to trust their ridership numbers or their budget — which keeps going up. They’ve already essentially misrepresented this project to the voters by reducing the route by a vast margin and dumping some bike/ped trails. This is not what voters saw on the ballot when they approved it. They issued what was supposed to be an informational brochure (at the cost of $10,000 in taxpayer dollars) that was purely a propaganda piece favoring SMART. A train linking Cloverdale to Larkspur, built and operated in a financially responsible way, would be great. I’m still occasionally covering this topic, so I keep an open mind, but I’m skeptical. Did you read the grand jury report about this?

    • I haven’t, although it’s on my reading list, along with the MCBC and SMART responses. I have a number of problems with the project, too, but those problems haven’t changed the cost-effectiveness much, and have increased the cost-per-mile from extremely low ($7 million) to very low.

  2. Richard Hall says:

    Can you please update this posting so that it is accurate. The cost of SMART has increased from $404m to over 50% more . This Nov 2010 Press Democrat article, published before this blog posting, reports the cost of SMART at $695m:


    (I’m still checking to understand of $695m is the accurate cost and includes the cost of the bond issues and covers initial operational losses given the low ridership projections. We have yet to see the profit and loss once operational so $695m is likely an understatement).

    Unless you’re conceding this site is not based on published facts.

    • You misread my post – this is talking about the initial operating segment between San Rafael and Santa Rosa, not the full 70.5 mile railroad. If we used the estimated figure for the full line, SMART’s cost-per-mile would actually go down to $9.9 million per mile.

  3. Richard Hall says:

    Will you be paying for those taxes, or impacted by the reduction in city and county services to subsidize a train carrying a meagre 4,000 riders in 2035? No. You live in Washington D.C.

    What is 4,000 divided by a billion dollars?

    • I’ve thought about how much I would pay for SMART. Since I don’t make much and don’t spend much on taxable items, my bill comes to about $9 per year.

      More to your point, is it an evil to have opinions about a place you once lived? I doubt you managed to abandon opinions on Britain when you left, and you might even be able to articulate new ones.

      On the other hand, do you fault Tom Friedman for writing about Michigan, or the Economist for writing about Indonesia? Are their opinions less valid because they don’t pay taxes in the places they write about? It’s the strength of their ideas that I evaluate, not their location. But, perhaps you’ve left behind the UK entirely, and maybe you don’t read analyses of the Chinese economy from people who only used to live there. Or perhaps you should criticize an idea based on the idea’s merit, not where the person speaking it lives.

  4. Richard Hall says:

    No it is not evil. I respect the opinions of my many English friends and relatives about what goes on there – they’re far better placed than me to understand.

    There are others (not yourself) who appear to be imposing a minority view against the wishes of those most impacted. You seem to share their view – at least you are very open about it which I applaud so that we can have a good healthy debate.

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