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North Bay train provides a glimpse into the state’s transportation future

If this train is so SMART, why can’t I find it?

That’s the question I asked myself in Larkspur, Marin County, after arriving on the ferry from San Francisco one recent morning.

I was on my way to Petaluma and was eager to experience California’s newest and most spectacular ferry-to-train connection: the Golden Gate Ferry to the SMART train, the light rail line that runs through Marin and of Sonoma.

SMART, while little known statewide, offers great inspiration to Californians who want more infrastructure that connects us. It’s also a window into where California continues to grow — on our metropolitan borders, outside of places like Fairfield, Riverside, and Escondido.

SMART opened in 2017, offering 43 miles of service from Marin’s San Rafael to Charles M. Schulz Airport in Sonoma. It was built for peanuts – only $400 million. An extension south of San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry opened just before the pandemic hit, crushing demand for trains and ferries.

But attendance is bouncing back. And SMART is working to expand. It involves adding a second Petaluma station and creating a micro-transit service to connect its airport station to the current airport.

SMART has begun construction on an extension north of Windsor, although it has halted that work pending a decision from the California Supreme Court on funding for the project. Eventually, SMART will take the train further afield – to Cloverdale, at the gates of Mendocino County, 80 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

And SMART has been studying a new line east through the North Bay from its Novato-Hamilton station to the Interstate 80 corridor in Suisun City. There, SMART would share a station with Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor service, which connects the state capital and San Jose. A new East-West link from North Bay can’t happen anytime soon. The state says California State Route 37, the region’s most popular east-west thoroughfare, could be “permanently submerged” by 2040 due to storms and rising sea levels.

With all of these projects, SMART seeks to serve both California visitors and Californians who may be less likely to live in the middle of our largest cities, but still want to be connected. Indeed, transit projects such as SMART and the ACE train, which crosses the Altamont Corridor and extends south and east through Modesto to Merced, help make Northern California this what some call “the mega-region”. This design imagines the “Bay Area” extending to Lake Tahoe or Fresno.

Of course, serving such a large area requires making smart links accessible to real people. In Larkspur, SMART has work to do.

The experience was mortifying because I had bragged about SMART that day to my companion, a fellow Swiss-Swedish journalist. After decades of traveling the world by train, he’s a train snob, and he started making little jokes as soon as I turned left off the ferry, wandered to the edge of its parking lot – and that I couldn’t find the train. Unable to locate the platform using the navigation app on my wayward smartphone, I started heading into a tunnel used by cyclists and pedestrians. Still no train.

Eventually we strolled to the right side of the car park, crossed the busy Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and meandered around a curve in a smaller street, through two office car parks and down a narrow alley to reach the station. On board, the ride went well, although my European friend asked a driver why the train runs on diesel and not electric (the sagenheimer’s answer: to save money in an America that doesn’t does not invest much in trains).

The good news is that if my colleague ever returns to North Bay, the problem should be solved. After making a few calls I learned that SMART had repeatedly put up sandwich panels and posted signs to show the way from the ferry to the train and back – but these keep being stolen or taken away by the winds. As of this writing, they are adopting a more permanent solution: vinyl decals will be applied to the roadway to mark the safest route.

These decals are called breadcrumbs and you can follow them, slowly and carefully, into California’s future.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo public square.