Posts Tagged ‘SMART’

Train Robbery

Once again, SMART rail planners try to raid bike/ped funds:

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials are seeking $6.6 million in federal funds to buy more train cars, money that otherwise would be used for local pedestrian and bicycle paths.

“SMART is committed to go to Cloverdale and to Larkspur and as you go farther, you need more vehicles,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

SMART’s request is drawing fire from bicycle advocates because the rail agency would be taking the lion’s share of $9.9 million that Sonoma County is getting for such projects as bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, traffic lights, Safe Routes to Schools programs and even construction of SMART’s own pedestrian and bicycle path.

“It would mean that most jurisdictions would have to put off implementing most of their bike-pedestrian plans for five years, at least,” said Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

The coalition has been a staunch supporter of SMART but is strongly opposing this bid. “We don’t understand how it makes sense for one train set to take two-thirds of the funding for the entire network,” Lupien said.

This problem all stems from a very ill-advised decision by SMART to custom-design FRA-compliant railcars. Compared to the global price, the SMART DMU’s will be nearly twice as expensive. And the decision to run under FRA rules adds huge cost; for example: the $12 million spent on the quiet zones. It would be one thing if SMART needed the $6.6 million to cover legitimate shortfalls. But in this case, it is to pay for self-inflicted problems.

And here again, we see the downsides to Buy-America rules on railcars. $6.6 million taxdollars could be used to hire local Sonoma contractors to build bike-paths for local Sonoma bike riders. SMART instead would send that money to subsidize jobs out in Illinois, which does nothing for the local California economy.


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The Price of Silence

When “SMART” stupidly decided to operate under Federal FRA-compliant regulations, it created a whole bunch of unnecessary costs:

The board of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District this week unanimously agreed to spend at least $12 million on safety measures associated with establishment of “quiet zones.”

Federal regulations require that train horns blow a quarter-mile before a crossing and continue to sound until the train passes into the intersection. They must sound at a minimum of 96 decibels, which is equal to the volume of a backyard power mower.

Actually, 96 decibels is equivalent to a jackhammer from 50′ away. If they had decided to operate the line as a transit operation, then FRA rules would not apply and the $12 million quiet zones wouldn’t be necessary.

$12 million is not a trivial amount of money, especially given SMART’s budget problems. For example, $12 million is enough to buy two or three DMU trainsets.

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San Rafael has put together one of those Gawd-awful design-by-committees to do a station area plan for its downtown. This is for when the new ‘SMART’ rail line reaches the downtown.

Here some of their recommendations:

  1. Additional traffic lanes on Hetherton St.
  2. 3rd St. crosswalk elimination
  3. 1:1 parking requirement
  4. Potential public garage
  5. Potential future transit parking

It is amazing how so many of these transit station area-plans morph into autocentric parking plans.

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Can Anyone Spare $45 Million?

SMART DMU planners still trying to develop a convincing budget plan:

On Wednesday the Metropolitan Transportation Commission decided to delay a vote on the money after Farhad Mansourian, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency’s acting chief, concluded last week the rail project would cost another $45 million.

You know what would help save $45 million? Not paying a nearly 100% cost mark-up for proprietary DMUs. And not wasting huge amounts of diesel fuel on the FRA weight-penalty.

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Shit Flows Down, Money Flows Up

Shit flows down, money flows up was how Tony Soprano described the Mafia. It is also an apt description for our transportation hierarchy.

Consider recent developments in the ‘SMART’ commuter rail saga.

‘SMART’ is now $350 million under-funded (shock news). As a result, the MTC has proposed to “down-size” a $70 million bike path that had also been promised to voters.

Besides the obvious inequity, shifting funds from bikes to trains is fiscally nonsensical. Bike paths require no operating subsidy, and are inexpensive to build. According to the FTA cost-per-new-rider metric, the bike path will be orders-of-magnitude more effective for reducing car trips. Trains might be more sexy than bike paths, but this scheme would cannibalize the most cost-effective portion of the project.

Highway Robbery
The situation gets more distressing as one looks at the overall funding picture. Highway 101, the main competitor for SMART trains, will be lavished with hundreds of millions for expansion projects. Since 2001, some $400 million has been programmed for Highway 101 widening, with more to come.

Sonoma County highway planners have asked the state to let them keep the savings from three Highway 101 widening projects that came in under budget and use it for three new projects. The savings, $50 million in state funds and $23 million in local sales tax money, would be earmarked to widen another stretch of freeway and rebuild two overpasses, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “This is the first time we have had full funding for these segments in sight,” Smith said. “We are pretty excited about the opportunity to keep the bid savings in the county and in the corridor.”

The bike path, the SMART rail line, and highway 101 all serve the same corridor! Two branches of government, SMART and the County Highway Dept, are operating at cross purposes. The highway department expands highway capacity while SMART is trying to shift car trips to trains. There is not enough money to pay for both, so guess who gets first dibs?

Thus, the transportation food chain is clear: The highway department gets all the resources it needs. The rail service has to truncate its project and raid bike funds. The bike path? It is at the bottom, fighting for survival. Shit flows down, money flows up.

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The Six Million Dollar Train

SMART has received bids from DMU vendors. And as predicted, those bids are way above the market price for DMUs.

So how has SMART staff reported this news to the Board?

The price proposal from SCOA is very favorable to SMART, so much so that it became clear in the evaluation process that its acceptance without further change was in the best interest of SMART…SMART’s estimate for this base order prior to opening of the price proposals was approximately $80 million. The recommended award is for a contract that is about $23 million below the engineer’s estimate.

The lowest bid (Sumitomo Corporation of America) was $56 million for 9 DMU trainsets; i.e. $6 million per trainset. Similar projects in Europe are considerably less expensive, around $3-4 million per trainset. For example, Alstom’s sale of 23 DMU trainsets for $90 million to Hessische Landesbahn GmbH (transit operator in Hesse, Germany). Or this Deutsche-Bahn order of 30 DMUs for $96 million.

Even worse, the Sumitomo bid isn’t for a real train. It exists only on the drawing board. The SMART riders will be the ones to test and debug it.

So how did they get to this point? Answer: the usual reasons…staff specifying custom-designed rolling stock, and refusal to pursue FRA-waiver. The regulatory flaming-hoops-of-fire (FTA Buy-America rules, and FRA/PUC screwiness). Just another example of how American transit riders pay more, and get less.

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SMART Financials

A mere 9% sales tax decline has resulted in a funding gap of at least $154 million for SMART rail project.

But how could that be?

Just over 1 year ago, SMART staff reported numerous built-in safeguards:

In order to ensure that SMART’s revenues are enough to cover its expenses over the next 20 years, SMART and its financial consultants conducted a months-long analysis of finances for the project. Then they subjected their draft findings to a rigorous review by outside experts, including Dr. Eyler and transportation finance professionals from the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM). Comments from those reviewers, along with suggestions and questions submitted by members of the public, helped SMART finalize its funding plan.

The result is a document that outlines costs, revenues, bonding strategy, financial risk management and a detailed 20-year cash flow analysis for the project. It includes fuel cost, ridership, sales tax collection and inflation assumptions. And, on top of those conservative assumptions, it includes contingencies of nearly 20 percent for each year of operation and all construction costs.

Curiously, SMART staff revealed shortfalls before construction began. Are they not aware that planners only confess to shortfalls in mega-projects until after construction begins. It is so much easier to secure additional funds once a big hole is dug in the ground.

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