SMART – Quiet Zone and Financial Update

Demanding a Quiet ZoneMany hundreds of San Rafael and Novato residents stand to be impacted or significantly impacted by 100 dB SMART Train horns that will commence at around 5:45am every weekday. Most of these residents remain unaware. Test soundings of horns along the line can be heard “loud and clear” 1 1/2 miles away.

Over 390 cities have implemented “Quiet Zones”. These require not insignificant expenditure – millions by the train operator, possibly tens of thousands by cities – and that cities apply to the Federal Railroad Administration for a Quiet Zone. Quiet Zones remove trains obligations to blow their horns for 15-20 seconds as they approach railroad crossings. San Rafael has sufficient railroad crossings that this means the train will be sounding it’s horn near continuously. There will be 22 trains per day concentrated to morning and evening peaks. Even though Quiet Zones eliminate these horns  considerable noise will remain:

  • The train is required to blow it’s horn when departing each station  (E.g. Civic Center)
  • Bells will ring at each crossing as crossing arms go up or down
  • The diesel engine and wheels will make noise

San Rafael Quiet Zone Update

1) In a July presentation SMART made to Sonoma County Alliance, it stated the following which is concerning and might signal a backtrack on Quiet Zones:

If the FRA or CPUC require additional capital outlays as part of a jurisdiction’s QZ application, those expenditures are not covered by SMART.

Train Horn Decibel Levels

Click for larger image. Train horns are over 90dB at 5,000 feet distance and 80dB at 1,500 feet distance.

2) A specific cost that we know is part of the Quiet Zone process is the “diagnostics” that need to be submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Nadar Mansourian, the city of San Rafael’s public works director (and brother of Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s General Manager) has mentioned that these have already been performed.

This implies that SMART may have done the initial diagnostics for “all” of the at-grade crossings subject to a Quiet Zone, including those in Novato. If they’ve done the diagnostics, then the July quote in #1 doesn’t make sense. We are seeking clarification on this contradiction and hope to get a clear answer.

3) The City of San Rafael City Manager, Nancy Mackle, states that the FRA process takes 3 months. The FRA on this very issue and the only time frame they would commit to (verbally) is that “it depends.” Other cities that have been through this process report that it takes much longer, but in most of the cases that I’m aware of, those involved private freight operators. (Freight will not be running south of Novato on SMART).

quietzone-horn4) We are seeking clarification on the term “Quiet Zone Ready” is something that needs to be clarified. Residents in Novato who attended SMART sponsored community meetings walked away with the impression “there would be Quiet Zones” and “there are no additional costs to local taxpayers.”

For sure SMART has invested in infrastructure and in many cases that infrastructure may be compatible with federal requirements. But, in no way does it actually mean Quiet Zones will be implemented and certainly not without cost to the local taxpayers. We are seeking clarification as “Quiet Zone Ready” is leading to a potentially misleading conclusion that a Quiet Zone is in place.

5) There remains a significant lack of awareness of San Rafael residents who will be impacted by the train horn of the Quiet Zone issue. Others as well as myself have encouraged the city to send out a mailer to residents within annoyance distance of the at-grade crossings. This would ensure that the city does “all it can do” to inform residents of the issue.

6) There may be the potential for train engine and horn noise levels to be increased because of reflective noise in that area. To truly understand the impact would require research by a sound engineer. It may be a relevant piece of information for the council to consider.

Extension to Larkspur May Complicate Quiet Zones

The federal funding of the extension to Larkspur complicates the Quiet Zone discussion. While SMART hasn’t been granted the funds yet (although, their prospects are good for the FTA grant), the timing for approval may occur right in the middle of Quiet Zone public hearings.

If SMART secures funding to extend to Larkspur then a city-wide Quiet Zone would require more expenditure to make crossings Quiet Zone safe south of downtown San Rafael starting at 3rd and 2nd street. There are costs associated with multiple zones and the city will need to incorporate these into the discussions if the grant is approved.

WakingUpEarlyWhen Will SMART Start Running in the Morning?

SMART has not committed to a schedule yet, but the clock “math” is pretty clear. They have said they’re going to operate 7 south bound trains in the morning peak with 30 minute headways. This implies trains before 6 a.m. How many riders will the earliest trains carry? An educated guess is “not that many” since for the most part is before the San Rafael workday begins and traffic on 101 is only beginning to build. Given SMART’s longer term financial constraints, early operations may not last for very long.

SMART’s Financial Viability

Higher Taxes Ahead

If there’s another recession we may likely face the choice of raising taxes or shutting down SMART.

In particular, their debt issuance costs and labor costs of construction (per mile) are far less that were forecast prior to the Great Recession. In combination, these factors roughly balance out, depending on exactly how one does the calculation.

Much of the evidence suggests that SMART was always underfunded. They were told in 2005 by consultants (Parsons-Brinkerhoff) a quarter cent was not enough to fund and operate trains over 20 years. And that’s pretty much the way it has worked out.

The financial reality is that SMART still isn’t fully funded (even for Phase I) as the public will only learn once rail operations begin. While the timing of SMART’s budget deficits depends on the growth rate of sales tax revenues and ridership, under all circumstance it is difficult to see how they make it through the next recession, because they are so highly “levered.” The financial penalty is significant. The loss of revenues available for operations is roughly equal to the decline in sales taxes times the leverage ratio.

Restated – once the next recession hits SMART will struggle to continue operations, it may have to cut back, cease operations or seek additional funding from voters.