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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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Sonoma County supervisors back study of Fulton Road SMART station

Tyler Silvy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday capped a month of speculation about behind-the-scenes jockeying over a third Santa Rosa-area SMART station, voting 4-1 to fund a study of a new stop in north Santa Rosa.

The discussion had initially pit supervisors Lynda Hopkins and James Gore against Supervisor Shirlee Zane and board Chairman David Rabbitt, as Hopkins and Gore favored a Fulton Road location in north Santa Rosa and Zane favored a station in southwest Santa Rosa, near Roseland or Moorland Avenue. Rabbitt wanted to know where the $11 million to build such a station would ever come from before agreeing to study it.

In the end, Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents parts of eastern Santa Rosa and the entire Sonoma Valley, was the lone board member to vote against the $50,000 study of the Fulton site.

Supervisors began the discussion with an attempt to dispel reports they had been squabbling about the location. But they ended with a threat from Gorin that Sonoma Valley likely wouldn’t support tax renewal for SMART because it doesn’t directly serve her constituents. Hopkins chimed in that deliberations reflected the board’s need for a therapy dog.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10151507-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-back-study

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State rail regulators to decide fate of Santa Rosa’s Jennings Avenue SMART crossing

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State rail regulators in San Francisco are set to vote Thursday morning on Santa Rosa’s request to restore a ground-level pedestrian and bicycle pathway over the railroad tracks at Jennings Avenue.

The city has sought the return of the historic east-west crossing in northwestern Santa Rosa since receiving the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval to build it in September 2016. It is seeking a two-year extension to work out a deal for it with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which now owns the rail right of way. A legal arbitrator for the state agency last month recommended granting the request to construct the footpath through September 2021, stating that the city’s plan for added enhancements met public safety requirements.

SMART, the North Bay’s commuter rail agency, opposes a ground-level crossing at Jennings Avenue, citing ongoing safety concerns.

In 2015, two years before the launch of service, SMART fenced off the pathway, which dates to at least the early 20th century.

SMART previously supported the city’s plan to build an overcrossing at the location, submitting a letter of support as part of a regional transportation grant application for $8 million toward the $9 million project. Santa Rosa ultimately reverted back to a ground-level crossing, noting the access challenges for disabled people and the overcrossing’s general incompatibility with the neighborhood. It returned the grant funding.

SMART submitted [a] letter in support of the city’s updated plans before reversing course once passenger service started. SMART did not return a request for comment Monday about the Public Utilities Commission’s upcoming vote on the crossing. If approved Thursday, the two-year extension would place the ball back in the court of SMART and the largest city along its rail line, leaving the two entities to come to an agreement over the long-disputed issue.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10147543-181/state-rail-regulators-to-decide?sba=AAS

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Sonoma County supervisors at odds over location of proposed 3rd Santa Rosa SMART station

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors are jostling behind the scenes on the location of a possible third SMART station in Santa Rosa or on its outskirts, with two members of the five-person board planning to ask for the money to study a site in Fulton at a county meeting next month.

Supervisors James Gore and Lynda Hopkins are pressing for the Fulton location and have both recently met with Farhad Mansourian, general manager of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, about a plan that would see the county pay for a feasibility study for the proposed station near Fulton and River roads, just north of city limits.

But Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year member of the SMART board of directors, would prefer to see a potential third station for the city’s 175,000 people in the southwestern area of Santa Rosa, near Roseland. That part of town has a large Latino population and could benefit from the increased access to public transit, she said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10007629-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-at-odds?sba=AAS

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SMART board laying groundwork for sales-tax renewal amid looming financial crisis

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The daunting financial challenges disclosed last week by the North Bay’s commuter rail system have only increased the urgency within SMART to convince voters to renew a sales tax that funds the 2-year-old train line and underpins its future.

SMART officials are beginning to craft the talking points for a campaign to persuade voters that, despite past rail agency missteps, they should extend the agency’s tax funding another two or three decades, allowing it to more readily refinance its mounting debt costs.

To be successful, members of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board say, the campaign must show voters how the system has improved the quality of life across the region, beyond its 1.4 million riders to date, and enhanced the economies of the two counties it serves.

“I think it’s a reasonable ask,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a nine-year board member. “We’re asking to extend a sales tax in order to assure that we’re here and healthy for the next 30 years, and can continue to expand and be convenient for riders. That’s the message.”

To renew the tax, however, SMART also must overcome its faults and earn the trust of two-thirds of the voters in Sonoma and Marin counties. Revenues have fallen far short of initial projections, construction costs have doubled, and buildout of the rail line and parallel bike path is far behind the original schedule.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9881990-181/smart-board-laying-groundwork-for

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SMART says it faces multimillion-dollar deficits without sales-tax renewal

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail system could face crippling multimillion-dollar deficits within three years if voters in Sonoma and Marin counties don’t pass a proposed sales-tax extension in March, SMART officials revealed for the first time Wednesday.

Starting in 2022, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit would need to slash at least $9 million annually — about a seventh of its operating expenses — resulting in cuts to service and SMART’s workforce if the 12-member board opts not to seek early renewal of the tax next year, or if the extension is put to voters and they reject it, officials said.

The agency’s financial forecast showed operating expenses climbing from $58 million this fiscal year to about $63 million two years from now, with tax and fare revenues not expected to keep pace. The rise is driven mostly by escalating payments on debt accrued in SMART’s buildout, as well as rising labor, fuel and maintenance costs.

“We just need to call a spade a spade as we see it today,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told the board. “Doing nothing is not an option and pretty bad for everybody. We’re being straightforward. We don’t want to mislead the members of the public. We want to tell them what the pains are, what the chokeholds are and what our options are.”

The newly unveiled forecast marked the first public acknowledgment by SMART officials that the 2-year-old line already faces a potentially deepening near-term shortfall in its budget. The projections did not account for the possibility of a recession, which would carve an even larger hole into the system’s budget. More than 70% of SMART’s spending on operations is supported by the quarter-cent sales tax.

It isn’t set to expire for another decade, but SMART officials say early renewal would allow them to restructure and reduce debt payments, which are now set to rise to $16 million next year and $18 million by 2022.

Without the tax renewal and financial adjustments it would support, SMART would be forced to cut commuter service in half, according to the agency’s finance chief, effectively sidelining 18 of the 36 train trips. Dozens of jobs could be also eliminated from the workforce of about 200, officials signaled.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9874597-181/smart-says-it-faces-multimillion

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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

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With only 16 miles finished, cyclists upset by SMART’s delays in completing promised bike path

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Nearly a year and a half since the North Bay rolled out its commuter rail, cyclists in the region feel slighted over how little of the paved path SMART promised along the tracks is finished.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is scheduled to extend by year’s end its train operations more than 2 miles south to Larkspur, completing 45 miles of the planned 70-mile line that will eventually stretch up to Cloverdale.

However, just 16.2 miles of the separated bicycle and walking trail linking each of the stations has been built. That includes short segments totaling about 5 miles across Novato, San Rafael and Cotati completed in the past two years.

Another 1-mile segment northwest of the downtown Petaluma Station is set to be built this summer.

Still, that will represent about a third of the 54 miles SMART pledged as part of Measure Q, a ¼-cent sales tax hike Sonoma and Marin county voters approved more than a decade ago to create the North Bay commuter rail system. Another 16 miles of existing trail next to the train corridor is to receive upgrades.

Critics, including two cycling advocacy groups in the region that boast thousands of members, contend what’s accessible now falls far short of SMART’s obligation.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9413042-181/with-only-16-miles-finished

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SMART’s review of ticket prices could come next month — or next year

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

“We need to look at how we’re going to make our train public transit for everybody, because I think it is not affordable for some people,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has served on the SMART board for nine years. “We’re seeing that our numbers are still primarily white men working at good paying jobs who can afford the fares. I do want to talk about diversity in terms of ridership and what we’re doing to achieve that.”

The North Bay’s commuter rail service has been in operation for a year and a half, with a stable ridership, slightly higher-than-expected fare revenues, and work continuing on extension of the line to its southern terminus in Larkspur.

But a key dilemma remains unaddressed: How to diversify its passenger base beyond the current set of predominantly white, well-off riders?

Some board members of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency last year publicly speculated on whether system’s pricing structure was impacting the makeup of riders, serving as a detractor for low-income commuters.

The SMART board had previously committed to re-evaluating the fare structure after the first year of operations. But now 18 months since it began service, the agency has yet to bring the matter forward for a public discussion.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, has been noncommittal this year and last on when exactly that step would come.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9326457-181/smarts-review-of-ticket-prices

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Bikeshare coming to Sonoma County SMART stations

Matt Brown, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

Sonoma County transportation planners are looking to solve a major dilemma that has potentially suppressed SMART ridership in the rail system’s first year: How do you get riders from the station to their final destination?

For the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, the solution may be a new bikeshare program. The agency received an $800,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to launch a one-year bikeshare pilot.

“There is a lot of interest in how people get to and from trains, and whether station parking is adequate,” said Dana Turrey, a planner with the transportation authority.

The agency is accepting proposals through March and will evaluate them in the spring. The format of the program will depend on the winning bid, but models in other cities include dock-based bikes, which are rented and returned to a fixed dock, and others that can be locked to any location and found using GPS.

The program will initially focus around SMART stations in Sonoma and Marin counties, Turrey said. In Petaluma, that would mean a passenger arriving at the downtown SMART station could pick up a public bike and ride it the last mile to a restaurant or concert in downtown. Other bikes could be stationed at the Petaluma Community Center for riders on the east side, according to the proposal, which calls for about 300 bikes overall.

Read more at https://www.petaluma360.com/news/9307583-181/bikeshare-coming-to-sonoma-county