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SMART

A Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train.

A rider exits the SMART train at the Larkspur platform, steps onto a driverless shuttle waiting nearby and gets dropped off at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal for the commute across San Francisco Bay.

This is one vision the Marin County Civil Grand Jury has for how the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority can enhance its ability to connect riders to its Marin stations.

In its latest report, the grand jury heaped praise on SMART and other local transportation agencies’ efforts so far to provide riders ways to get to and from their stations since trains began running in August 2017.

“The expectation is that new options for first and last mile connections will be implemented as the system matures,” the report states.

Along with looking at the possibility of using driverless shuttles, the grand jury is recommending local transit agencies such as Marin Transit and the Transportation Authority of Marin expand the on-demand Marin Connect shuttle service; for SMART to complete its feasibility study by July on creating a east-west track to Napa County; and to conduct surveys and research on how best to get SMART riders to and from their stations.

“I think all of the recommendations have a lot of merit and are very good,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, adding that some of the recommendations are already under discussion.

Mike Arnold of Novato, an economist and SMART critic, said the grand jury report in no way addressed how these agencies would pay for the “quote unquote free” shuttles or other new transit services. He cited SMART’s “flat” ridership and declining gas tax revenue as issues and said more taxes would likely be needed to pay for the expanded services.

Robert Betts, Marin Transit’s director of planning and operations, said he has yet to review the report, but said agencies would clearly need to look at how expanded transit would be funded and who would pay for it.

“I think you have to ask a similar question about who these services are serving and subsidizing,” Betts said.

The Transportation Authority of Marin is deferring comment on the report until its board of directors has had a chance to review it, according to a spokeswoman.

As for its driverless shuttle recommendation, the grand jury states it could be most useful upon completion of SMART’s $55.4 million Larkspur extension later this year or early 2020. The Larkspur Ferry Terminal is about a quarter-mile from the train platform, which the grand jury states makes it optimal for a shuttle. Autonomous or not, this shuttle should be free for riders, the grand jury recommended. The grand jury also envisioned another driverless shuttle that loops through Hamilton in Novato to serve the nearby station.

SMART is working with a consultant and has had initial talks with the city of Novato and Contra Costa Transportation Authority about potentially testing a driverless shuttle that would run between the Hamilton station to the Bel Marin Keys Industrial Park, Mansourian said.

“There are many details that would need to be sorted out before the city could consider a formal proposal for this type of service — the safe operation of any kind of driverless vehicle being our top concern,” Novato City Manager Regan Candelario wrote in an email.

For the Larkspur shuttle, Mansourian said he and his staff have been speaking with the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District and the city of Larkspur about ways to connect SMART riders to the ferry.

Santa Rosa recently ended its own free shuttle service from a SMART station to its downtown corridor because of high costs and low riders. Arnold said officials should think hard before allocating more funding to what he says is “one of the most inefficient transit systems in the state.”

“All of those ideas are great ideas as long as no one has to pay for them,” he said.

SMART has already met the grand jury’s request to release a feasibility study on the east-west rail expansion to Napa and Solano counties, Mansourian said. The $500,000 study found that such a project could cost up to $1.2 billion.

The grand jury has requested formal responses to its report from Marin Transit, SMART and the Transportation Authority of Marin.

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