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SMART, Santa Rosa at loggerheads over Jennings Avenue pedestrian and bicycling crossing

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s year-old commuter rail line and the region’s largest city are embroiled in an increasingly entrenched public standoff over whether to construct a long-planned footpath across the tracks in northwest Santa Rosa — a crossing sought by the adjacent neighborhoods, bicyclists and some of the train system’s most vocal advocates.

Santa Rosa favors the pedestrian and bicycle crossing at Jennings Avenue, a project first outlined almost a decade ago and endorsed once again by the City Council this week. The crossing is meant to restore an east-west footpath that dates back to at least the early 20th century, according to the city, and until it was fenced off by SMART in 2015 remained a key community connector.

But the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, which previously backed the ground-level crossing and twice offered letters of support for grant funding to build it, abandoned the concept about a year ago and has sidestepped any scheduled public discussion of the disputed pathway.

SMART officials say the at-grade crossing would endanger path users, including schoolchildren. The proposed crossing, about 1 mile north of the downtown Railroad Square station, would traverse tracks where oncoming trains usually travel at 35 mph, according to SMART.

But public comments from Santa Rosa council members over the stalled project reflected the city’s growing sense of frustration. Some were confused by the impasse. Others were incensed. The path is meant to serve an area of the city that otherwise lacks suitable pedestrian access across the tracks.

“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re having a conversation about the safety of this crossing at this point,” said Mayor Chris Coursey, a former SMART spokesman. “If this crossing as designed isn’t safe, then there isn’t a safe crossing on SMART’s line. It’s a railroad that needs to be integrated with these communities. Crossings are part of the design. This crossing needs to be part of the design.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8866793-181/smart-santa-rosa-at-loggerheads

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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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North Bay’s SMART train turns 1, eyes future growth

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART CELEBRATION

What: A festival for SMART’s first year of operation will feature live music, food trucks and more than 30 booths. The train will also be free to passengers all weekend.

Benefit: Sales of beer and wine at the party will go to Becoming Independent, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that assists people with disabilities.

When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hamilton Station, Novato

Joyce Dawson, 79, waved goodbye to her daughter standing on the Sonoma- Marin Area Rail Transit platform in San Rafael before settling into her forward- facing seat for the hourlong journey to visit family in Santa Rosa aboard the 11:29 a.m. train on a recent Friday.

The trip is one Dawson, who lives in the town of Ross in Marin County, has taken weekly for several months, on the train service that began a year ago. She’s become a consistent rider after getting fed up with routine gridlock on Highway 101. The end of her ability to drive sealed her reliance on the new transit system to make the voyage, and she’s happy to enjoy the day’s Wall Street Journal over a handful of Fritos corn chips while avoiding the stress of travel.

“It’s so easy, I barely even have to pay attention to the stops,” said Dawson, who’s lived in Marin County her entire life. “I think they do a good job. Anything to get cars off the road.”

Others along for the ride were SMART first-timers who were just as keen on the experience as the train left the station. The chance to buy and drink wine en route to a lunch in downtown Santa Rosa to celebrate a co-worker’s new job didn’t hurt.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8642140-181/north-bays-smart-train-turns

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Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials resist new Santa Rosa crossing

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Local passenger rail officials have told Santa Rosa they’re putting the brakes on plans for a $2.3 million rail crossing near Coddingtown Mall, but they’re saying very little publicly about their apparent reversal.

Top Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials recently informed Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey and other city officials that they are concerned about the safety of a proposed crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists at Jennings Avenue.

That’s a major about-face for SMART officials, who supported the crossing two years ago before state utility regulators and told Santa Rosa officials publicly they felt the crossing — which would block pedestrians from crossing the track when a train approaches — would be perfectly safe.

“We were told that circumstances had changed,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “If they no longer support building the Jennings crossing, it would be extremely disappointing.”

Jennings Avenue used to cross over the tracks in an east-west direction, but at some point decades ago the crossing was blocked off for vehicles and the street now dead-ends at the track. Area residents continued to cross the tracks there in relative safety as rail service over the ensuing decades was sporadic or nonexistent.

When SMART began testing trains on the line in 2015, it fenced off the area and directed pedestrians and bicyclists to cross a quarter-mile north at Guerneville Avenue.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8569281-181/sonoma-marin-area-rail-transit-officials

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SMART gets $22.5 million federal grant for Larkspur rail extension

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The extension of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line from San Rafael to the ferry terminal at Larkspur was awarded a key federal grant Monday, a $22.5 million check that will help make the line more accessible for both commuters and Bay Area tourists.

The Federal Transit Administration grant virtually assures that the 2.1-mile section already under construction will have the $55.4 million needed to complete the job, now envisioned for the end of 2019.
While Congress set aside the funds in 2016, allocation of the money by the federal transportation bureaucracies was never assured, so the decision to release the funds was a huge relief and represents a significant accomplishment for the local rail agency, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager.

“This is a big story,” Mansourian said. “We are one of five projects in the nation — out of a pipeline of 50-something — that has been approved.”

The project is important because it will make the transition between rail and ferry more convenient for commuters on the 43-mile line, and will also make the North Bay more accessible for tourists, Mansourian said. Riders currently take a shuttle bus between the ferry terminal and the downtown San Rafael rail station.

“When this is done, we’ll be connecting a regional ferry to a regional airport,” he said.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8205751-181/smart-gets-225-million-federal

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Proposed Sonoma-Marin program envisions 200-bike fleet at SMART train stations

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plans are underway for the North Bay’s new commuter rail system to be outfitted with as many as 200 bicycles for use by SMART riders getting to and from stations and their final destinations.
A joint proposal by Sonoma and Marin counties netted more than $800,000 in grant funding last month from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Once the money is disbursed, it will help launch the first large-scale, taxpayer-funded bike share program in the region — at train stops in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Petaluma, as well as Novato, San Rafael and the eventual Larkspur station now under construction.
The financial boost comes as SMART, now into its fourth month of operation between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, faces an unexpected surge in riders bringing their bikes aboard, straining space on some trains. The bike share program, which if everything goes smoothly will be ready in mid-2019, could help ease that crunch, according to local transportation planners.
“The direction that we’re looking at is really to add another first- and last-mile solution between SMART and nearby destinations,” said Dana Turrey, a planner with the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “There’s been a larger number of bicycles trying to get on the trains than was expected, so we’re really seeing this as another way to get back and forth to and from the train and on short trips without using a car.”
Read more at: Proposed Sonoma-Marin program envisions 200-bike fleet at SMART train stations

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Ferries, trains and automobiles: a somewhat SMART way for Sonoma County to do a weekend in San Francisco

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

I love train travel. I’m no expert on the viability of SMART, but I can tell you I won’t soon forget that ride. After passing Rohnert Park, we looked out on a thin ribbon of clouds just below the thickets of oak that crown the eastern mountains. Between Petaluma and Novato, we passed among wetlands where birds great and small hovered and glided over and dipped into shallow green waters. Along the route we saw vineyards and ranchettes, farms and grazing lands — most of them unseen from the freeway to our west, and all of them beheld from a fresh vista.

Call me crazy, but for the past year I’d wanted to take the SMART train and Golden Gate ferry to San Francisco.
Readers may remember that last year I wrote about traveling there with my wife, Carol, cruising by motor scooter along the back roads of Sonoma and Marin counties and across the Golden Gate Bridge. We had loved that adventure, and we were ready to try yet another way to get to “Baghdad-by-the-Bay”, as famed newspaper columnist Herb Caen used to call his town.
The wildfires that struck Oct. 9 didn’t change our plans, especially when our home remained safe and the threats of evacuation had passed. If anything, by the third weekend of October I was all the more ready for a break after two weeks of breathing smoke and covering stories in the ashes of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.
For anyone contemplating a “weekender” jaunt away from Sonoma County — for a Giants game, a concert, a bright-lights-big-city event — what we found venturing forth suggests both potential and some limitations of today’s North Bay public transit system.
We set out on a Friday morning for my maiden passage on SMART. The first challenge we faced was getting to the station. For that, I pulled out my smart phone and opened the Lyft ridesharing app. I’m not tech savvy, but I easily managed to request a ride. Within seven minutes we were seated in the back of a Kia sedan and on our way to the downtown Santa Rosa station. Cost: $11.96.
After stopping for a tasty hot chocolate at nearby Aroma Roasters, we walked past the historic stone train depot and climbed the platform. There we discovered that SMART was offering free rides that day due to the fires (normally the cost is $9.50 to San Rafael using a Clipper Card, which is accepted by all forms of public transportation in this story). A few minutes later the 8:31 a.m. train rolled up, and a highlight of our journey began.
Read more at: Ferries, trains and automobiles: a somewhat SMART way for Sonoma County to do a weekend in San Francisco

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SMART eyes eastbound rail extension toward Solano County

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Up and running for less than three months on a portion of its planned 70-mile route, the North Bay’s new commuter rail line is pursuing a plan to branch out to Solano County, where it would connect with the national rail system running from coast to coast.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system already owns 25 miles of track from Novato to the north end of Vallejo and would acquire use of the tracks from there to an Amtrak station at Suisun City.
“You gotta have a vision so you can get places,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager. At Suisun City, North Bay passengers could “go anywhere in the country,” he said.
The proposed extension, known as the Novato-Solano Hub, is included in the 2018 California State Rail Plan drafted by Caltrans as a blueprint for boosting ridership on the statewide rail and bus system from 110,000 daily trips currently to more than 1.3 million daily trips by 2040.
Read more at: SMART eyes eastbound rail extension toward Solano County

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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 –

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Commuters find joys, pains of using new SMART rail system 

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Five days a week, Wally Walston rides his bike less than 2 miles to the Cotati SMART station and rolls his two-wheeler aboard the train for a 32-minute trip to southern Novato.
In the past month Shaun Ralston has cycled to and from SMART stations in Sonoma and Marin counties. He also has combined his train trips with bus and ferry rides and been shuttled by Lyft, a ride-sharing service paid for by his employer, Sutter Health.
And Sharon Bringel last week said she was going to take her first SMART trip to her job in San Rafael. The decision came after watching a northbound train with a coworker on board zip by her car as it sat stuck in afternoon freeway traffic.
“When she passed us, I said, ‘Okay, we need to at least try this,’” said Bringel, who stopped by the Petaluma station on Thursday with her husband Don to purchase a Clipper Card, the payment method accepted by SMART and other regional transit services.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency attracted nearly 53,000 riders in its first three weeks of service, surpassing projections for the period of 46,800 passengers.
The biggest surprise has been the 15,000 weekend patrons, which is more than seven times greater than first anticipated.Even so, the majority of passengers still ride during the week, and interviews with a half-dozen commuters offered overwhelmingly positive reviews.
Read more at: Commuters find joys, pains of using new SMART rail system | The Press Democrat –