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SMART board highlights gains in commuter ridership while contesting overall dip in second year

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART board members on Wednesday sharply defended the North Bay rail line’s passenger numbers, touting gains in weekday ridership they said reflected the 28-month-old system’s growing popularity. At the same time, they rejected a recent analysis of passenger records by The Press Democrat that revealed overall ridership decreased in SMART’s second year.

The meeting marked the first time the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board met to publicly discuss detailed passenger data, including daily and weekly ridership, which had never before been disclosed by SMART until two weeks ago. The records were released after agency officials denied they kept such figures, which The Press Democrat sought for months to help evaluate the rail system’s use as SMART pitches an early sales-tax renewal to voters in March.

Agency staff presented an analysis that showed SMART’s ridership has only increased based on reviews of calendar and fiscal years. The hourlong presentation underscored the rise in weekday ridership — capturing the commuters SMART was launched to serve.

“I’m sort of tired of arguing over numbers. Anybody can slice and dice them any way they want,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a two-time SMART board chairwoman. “The story here is that there’s been an upward trend in weekdays year over year in the 2½ years that we’ve been in service. That’s the story.”

The Press Democrat analysis showed for the first time that SMART ridership declined 2.2% in its second year of operations, which ended last August. The decrease was driven by lagging weekend use, which fell 30% from the first year, and continues to drop in the first three months of the agency’s third year of service.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10559318-181/smart-board-highlights-gains-in

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SMART ridership declined in 2nd year, but weekday use growing, newly obtained records show

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Ridership on the SMART train dropped 2.2% in its second year of service, but is slowly starting to recover, according to newly disclosed passenger data that provides unprecedented detail about use of the region’s $600 million commuter rail system.

Daily ridership figures show that just over 706,000 passengers rode Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in its second year of operations, or 15,600 fewer than its inaugural year that began in summer 2017.

The data was obtained by The Press Democrat under the California Public Records Act after SMART repeatedly refused to release the figures, claiming the agency did not break out daily or weekly passenger totals commonly reported by other transit systems.

The decline in ridership during the second year of service stemmed from a 30% drop in weekend ridership. That slide has continued in the first three months of its third year, when weekend ridership fell another 7.4%, a Press Democrat analysis found.

However, the data shows that SMART is building ridership on weekdays, making progress toward one of its main objectives — providing an alternative for commuters driving to work on Highway 101. Weekday ridership rose 4.2% in the second year and was up another 4.2% in the first three months of the third year.

Until now, SMART has not provided any data to the public or its governing board showing any declines in ridership. SMART has only announced the total number of passengers who have boarded its trains since service started Aug. 25, 2017, a figure that increases every month and exceeded 1.6 million riders through November.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10518434-181/smart-ridership-declined-in-2nd

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SMART to begin train service to new Larkspur and Novato stations in mid-December

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART plans to launch service to Larkspur, the rail system’s gateway to San Francisco via the nearby ferry, by mid- December after finishing testing on the extension, helping set the stage for an expanded schedule that agency officials branded “a game changer.”

The 2-mile extension is Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s first completed expansion since it began operating in 2017 on 43  miles of existing track from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts. Completion is a watershed moment for the taxpayer-supported transit system voters approved in 2008. Design, construction and planning service took about 2½ years for the $55.4 million project that includes an accompanying bicycle and pedestrian pathway adjacent to the tracks that is expected to be finished by the end of next year.

The timing of the station’s opening next month and expansion of train service the first week of January is not lost on officials with SMART, who again seek voter support in March for renewal of the sales tax that funds the 2-year-old passenger rail system. Without extension of the commuter rail agency’s primary funding source about a decade early, staff has warned of a need to burn through financial reserves or make deep cuts to SMART’s workforce and service over the next three years.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10340941-181/smart-to-begin-train-service?ref=moststory

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SMART mulls early renewal of sales tax, reduction in fares for low-income riders

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail service will consider a plan to reduce fares for low-income riders as part of a larger proposal from SMART staff to next year seek voter renewal of the 20-year sales tax measure that’s funded the system since 2009.

The moves come as Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which launched service in August 2017, assesses its long-term financial picture with an eye on restructuring debt and accelerating its delayed full build-out.

It expects to complete the southern-most station in Larkspur by year’s end, expanding its operating line to 45 miles of the planned 70-mile corridor. But guaranteed future funding in the form of an earlier tax renewal could help the agency speed up its extension of service north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, according to SMART staff.

“The reality is we’re a transit operation, and we need to plan ongoing operations, we need to plan expansions,” Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer told SMART’s 12-member board at its Wednesday meeting. “We can’t have ballot box uncertainty in our future. We can’t have our revenues stopping in 10 years.”

Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties together in 2008 passed the quarter-cent sales that represents SMART’s primary funding stream. Measure Q will sunset in 2029, and the agency’s staff is recommending pursuing its renewal as early as the 2020 general election, ensuring, if passed by a two-thirds majority, funding for another 20 years through 2049.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9464429-181/smart-mulls-early-renewal-of

Posted on Categories Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

For second consecutive year, Sonoma County’s overall health ranking declines

Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Read the full report here and explore rankings by county here

For the second year in a row, Sonoma County’s rank in a key national measure of community health and wellness has declined when compared with other California counties.

According to the 2019 County Health Rankings compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute, Sonoma County dropped to No. 8 in overall health outcomes of its residents among the state’s 58 counties, a slip from No. 7 in 2018 and a high of No. 5 in 2017.

The annual health ranking includes a variety of issues, such as premature death, low birth weight, education attainment, income inequality, smoking, obesity, insurance coverage and violent crime, in an attempt to show how health is influenced by where people live, learn, work and play.

This year’s nationwide health rankings report zeroed in on the burden of high housing costs and the effect on people’s health.

The report found that more than 11 percent of households in the United States spend more than half of their monthly income on housing costs.

In Sonoma County, 24 percent of county residents experience at least one of four problems with housing: overcrowding; high housing costs; inadequate kitchen and plumbing.

Read more at

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Carpool decals set to expire for hundreds of thousands of California drivers with clean-air vehicles

Alexandria Bordas, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Clarence Dold has been a proud owner of a used Nissan Leaf electric car since 2016. Back when he was commuting to San Mateo from his home in Santa Rosa, being able to slide into the carpool lane and cruise past cars sitting idly in traffic was an added bonus to the smaller climate footprint of his electric vehicle. But as of Jan. 1, Dold and nearly 215,000 zero- and low-emission car owners in the state of California are set to lose their clean-air carpool status. That group is composed of electric and hybrid vehicles.

The state Legislature last year passed a measure that will no longer recognize the white and green carpool decals on clean-air vehicles purchased before 2017. Only vehicles purchased since then will qualify for the new passes, which are red. Those qualifying owners will have to apply to the state for the new passes.

Dold, who learned of the new law only weeks ago, said he felt the change unfairly treats drivers who have long invested in low-emission vehicles.

“What upsets me is that I thought I was going to get to use the decal for three years, and had I waited even just a few months, I would have qualified for the extension,” Dold said.

The new law is an attempt to address the overcrowding of carpool lanes — a result partly of California’s bid to spur the wider adoption of cleaner-burning vehicles 13 years ago by first offering owners of hybrid cars unrestricted access to carpool lanes. Caltrans documented the problem two years ago, pointing partly to increased carpool traffic stemming from clean-air decals.

California has the largest share of low- and zero-emission vehicles in the nation by far.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9089030-181/carpool-decals-set-to-expire?sba=AAS

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SMART to begin work on extension of commuter rail to Windsor

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board of directors Wednesday authorized spending $24 million to launch the next, highly anticipated phase of railwork needed to extend commuter train service north to Windsor.

The unanimous board decision represents a major expansion geared toward fulfilling the promise made in 2008, when voters approved a two-county, 70-mile line stretching from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

The SMART board approved the spending with two 12-0 votes, setting in motion rail safety upgrades and design work needed to expand the rail line north by 3 miles from the current northbound terminal near the Sonoma County Airport.

The work is set to begin this fall, with heavy construction in 2020 and system testing in 2021. Agency officials said SMART could start serving Windsor, with a population of 27,000, by late 2021 or early 2022.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8754419-181/smart-to-begin-work-on

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Study: Sonoma County getting older, more reliant on commuters

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County is heading into a period of powerful change: The rising number of senior citizens will outpace growth in working-age residents, increasing the county’s reliance on workers who live in other parts of the Bay Area.

A shortage of affordable housing is compounding the demographic shift, forcing more and more people to commute into the county every day to fill employers’ need for workers.

Those projections are addressed in a new, wide-ranging report from county economic development officials. The report, the 2018 Unabridged Sonoma County Indicators, is a virtual almanac of facts about the local economy, housing market, environment and health of residents.

The report is one of many released in 2018 that offer a wealth of socioeconomic data on the county. The compilation of statistics comes in a year where officials have been studying both threats and opportunities for the county and the greater Bay Area.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/8664855-181/study-sonoma-county-getting-older

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Santa Rosa bicycle commuter beaten while riding through homeless camp on Joe Rodota Trail

Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A bicycle commuter riding Tuesday along the Joe Rodota Trail was assaulted as he passed through a homeless camp on the popular bike and pedestrian path connecting Santa Rosa to Sebastopol.

Bill Petty, 42, was pedaling home when he said a group of eight to 10 people blocked his path. As he tried to walk his bike through the crowd, he said someone pulled on his shirt, an argument broke out and then a man punched him.

Petty said he suffered fractures just above his left eye and on his nose, which he had treated at the hospital.

“I didn’t even see the punch coming,” said Petty, a Roseland resident who for more than a year had been riding his bike every day to and from work on Auto Row on Corby Avenue.

He said he called out to the group as he approached on his bike but no one moved.

“They’re telling me that I should go around, I said, ‘I can’t go around because there’s tents on both sides of the trail,’” Petty said.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8337445-181/santa-rosa-bicycle-commuter-beaten

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SMART confronts crush of bike-toting commuters

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The North Bay’s new commuter rail line is proving popular among commuters with bicycles — so popular that SMART officials may eventually adjust the way they run trains to better accommodate passengers who bring their wheels on board.
Throughout September, SMART’s first full month of operations, trains usually carried about 250 to 300 bicycles daily on weekdays, and less than 100 daily on weekends, according to figures recently provided by the transit agency.
Those numbers scrambled expectations of some Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit leaders who thought more bicyclists would ride on the weekends and more commuters would choose to leave their bikes behind before hopping on a train.
“There are way more people riding their bikes than I expected,” said Deb Fudge, Windsor mayor and the chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors. “That’s a good thing. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do in Sonoma County, is get people out of cars. And they’re doing it. And they’re getting to the stations lots of different ways.”
Fudge expected to see more people use the system’s bike lockers, available at all 10 stations. But many of those lockers have sat empty as more commuters instead brought their bikes to use trains.
Read more at: SMART confronts crush of bike-toting commuters | The Press Democrat –