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Posts Tagged ‘SMART’

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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SMART hasn’t even started running yet, and already it is likely cyclists will be bumped.

Christine Culver of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition said there will be a large demand for bicycle space from commuters and tourists alike, and she would like to see 15 percent of the seat space devoted to bikes. “Sonoma County is bicycles, the people who ride bicycles is growing exponentially,” Culver said.

It’s a trade-off, SMART spokesman Chris Coursey said. The more amenities, the fewer seats. The cars can hold 70 to 80 seats, but a bathroom takes up six seats, two bicycle racks take up two seats and a snack bar takes up six seats.

It is very disappointing to see SMART staff propose the use of bike racks. And it is even more embarrassing that bikes might get bumped to accommodate a wine bar or power room.

Bike racks are an outdated and inefficient solution for on-board accommodation of bikes on trains. The problem with bike racks is quite evident to anyone who has tried to bring a bike onto Caltrain: cyclists routinely get ‘bumped’ from otherwise empty trains simply because the bike racks are full.

The preferred method for on-board bike accommodation is to treat bikes like any other large bulky item — no different than baby strollers or suitcases. Provide a large ‘flexible-use’ space, preferably in the vestibule area. This space can be used for: wheelchairs, luggage, bikes, or (if trains are SRO) standees. Passengers are surprisingly good about figuring out for themselves how to best manage space, in a way that is far more efficient and flexible than bike racks. This is the approach taken by BART and most European operations.

Sadly, even if SMART staff were to follow industry best-practice, they still may have no choice but to rely on racks. With its ill-advised decision to run heavy DMUs, the FRA is going to require bikes to be strapped into racks, which could limit how many bikes will be permitted.


An example of industry best practice of flexible-use space near the doors. Passengers can figure out amongst themselves how to arrange their luggage, bikes, and wheelchars in this area. The articulated design and wide aisles makes it easy to distribute load evenly along the train, in case the space gets overcrowded.

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Not Very SMART, part 2

As reported earlier (Not Very Smart), SMART has decided against purchasing modern off-the-shelf trainsets. Instead, the inexperienced SMART staff will oversee contractors to design a new train from scratch.

A San Francisco firm has been selected to write the specifications and design requirements for the trains, tracks and stations for the Sonoma-Marin commute rail system.

“It is the train and all the systems for the project, that being the signals, communications, dispatch,” said Chris Coursey, spokesman for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit. “It is the whole kit and kaboodle for the trains and controls and all that makes it work.”

The firm, LTK Engineering Services, also will support SMART in its dealings with the Federal Railroad Administration and state Public Utilities Commission, which oversee railroads.

The contract is for $2 million and runs through December 2010.

What an amazing coincidence that the firm hired to custom-design these globally-unique trains is the very same firm that wrote the study recommending SMART not use off-the-shelf rolling stock.

Sadly, this is an all too common occurrence in passenger rail projects. Consultants have enormous incentive to choose the alternative that benefits only themselves, rather than the taxpaying public. In this case, LTK recommendation is the design of (in effect) a proprietary system that shuts out all other competition.

The obvious result is going to be ludicrous cost and poor operating performance. In every case where rail transit agencies have designed custom rolling stock, passengers got stuck with unreliable and expensive equipment.

All across Europe, projects quite similar to SMART are being built every year. Those projects go into operation with with minimal time and cost using nothing more than standard off-the-shelf parts — without having to spend 10 years and millions of dollars designing custom rolling stock from scratch.


The “modern” train SMART had proposed to operate until its preferred vendor went bankrupt

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