SMART train needs to avoid runaway costs

Even public transit advocates can be critical of the way government approaches some projects. The New York Times’ startling article, “How excessive staffing, little competition, generous contracts and archaic rules dramatically inflate capital costs for transit in New York,” demonstrates why New York’s partially completed Second Avenue subway costs six times more than Paris’ similarly situated Line 14 extension.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District faces similar out-of-control costs, frustrating those who want the most bang from scarce bucks.

Everywhere the process is dominated by a consultantocracy conditioned to build the perfect over the adequate but affordable.

The proposed $55 million, 3.1-mile extension of SMART’s commuter rail line from Santa Rosa Airport Station to Windsor is an example. In 2008, when North Bay voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax funding SMART, trains going north from Santa Rosa to Cloverdale were promised.

When the quarter-cent levy proved inadequate, the line’s “first phase” instead terminated at Windsor, the next town north of Santa Rosa.

Windsor is a booming community that needs and wants the promised trains.

SMART estimates it will cost $55 million to put the three-mile line into service. With no significant bridges involved, flat topography, existing Federal Railroad Administration Class 2 freight track in district ownership and Windsor’s already-built new depot, $18.3 million a mile seems high.

I ran the numbers by veteran Santa Rosa railroad civil engineer Mike Strider. With one caveat, Strider estimates the job can be done for about $7 million.

One big difference between Strider’s and SMART’s approach relates to maximum speed. SMART built its line to FRA Class 4 standard, allowing speeds up to 80 mph.

The three-mile Windsor segment is so short, given acceleration and de-acceleration times, rail cars can travel at maximum speed for only a mile. To control costs while expediting construction, Strider suggests upgrading the three miles of existing track to FRA Class 3 standards, allowing 60 mph. That change consumes two minutes of extra travel time and save tens of millions.

As an old railroad-hand friend says, “The problems is the tendency of most government agencies to build expensive high-maintenance solutions when simple solutions are at hand because those complex solutions automatically enrich the vendors and justify the employment of those who write the specifications.”

Engineer Strider’s estimate for making the 3.1-mile airport-to-Windsor segment ready for passenger service is in the range of $6.85 million. That’s including installation of Positive Train Control safety technology.

He cut tens of millions from SMART’s best guess by starting with the track. SMART’s plan is to remove and replace the existing three miles of track.

Don’t do it, he says. The current freight-only track is FRA Class 2. Doing a few relatively minor upgrades costing $800,000 a mile — totaling $2.4 million — will bring the three-mile segment up to FRA Class 3 standard which allows passenger train speeds of up to 59 mph.

The balance of his estimate is for two control points, approach signals at Windsor, existing track switch upgrades, improving four grade crossings and a temporary passenger platform at Windsor.

He discards the idea of building a frills-loaded Windsor station platform until service is extended north to Cloverdale. That won’t happen before 2027.

To be conservative, let’s add $3 million for contingencies and soft engineering. Call it $10 million.

Even if Strider’s estimate is low and we triple it to $20 million, it is still a $35 million savings over SMART’s $55 million projection. That’s not chump change.

At a minimum, SMART’s board and General Manager Farhad Mansourian need to summon value engineers and seek alternatives that get the rail cars to Windsor sooner at a lower cost.

Columnist Dick Spotswood of Mill Valley writes on local issues on Wednesdays and Sundays. Email him at


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