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With the pending arrival of the SMART regional rail system, some of the North Bay’s largest employers are struggling to master a key transit concept: “first mile/last mile,” or how to get workers to and from the train station.

The employers, including Keysight Technologies, Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente and the counties of Sonoma and Marin, are examining whether they can operate shuttles to help their workers get to their jobs.

Employers also are considering other new benefits: Employee pre-tax transit spending accounts, rail fare subsidies and bulk purchases of the Sonoma-Marin Area Regional Transit’s sole commuter discount, an annual pass.

More details still need to be worked out before employers are ready to reveal exactly what benefits they will offer. But many business leaders maintain they are striving to help SMART and make it easier for workers to take advantage of a new system that will, at first, operate trains from San Rafael to the south edge of Windsor.

“We’re going to try to help them make a good first impression,” said Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber is thinking of operating a shuttle service for five of the county’s largest employers: Keysight, Medtronic, Sutter, Kaiser and the county of Sonoma.

The business group also may become a bulk buyer of the SMART annual Eco-Pass, Coe said. Doing so could help members obtain the passes at a greater price discount than if bought by individual businesses.

In 2008, Sonoma and Marin voters approved the SMART system and agreed to help pay for its operation with a quarter-cent sales tax. Service is slated to begin in December, with the trains forecast to initially carry about 3,000 riders each weekday. The plan ultimately calls for trains to run from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

Shuttles are considered key in helping many potential SMART commuters complete the “last mile” of their journey to work. The first mile would be from home to the station.

“This has to be a system whereby employees can go from the station to the workplace in a reasonable period of time,” said Jeff Weber, a representative for Keysight, taking part in the shuttle talks. About 200 Keysight workers have expressed interest in possibly riding the train.

What remains unknown, Weber and others said, is whether the local employers can afford to run such shuttles.

It isn’t just businesses looking at providing possible transit benefits. The county of Marin is making plans to operate its own SMART shuttles for county employees.

Marin also may offer transit subsidies to county workers who take SMART or area bus or ferry systems. To do that, the county plans to conduct negotiations with its labor force before the trains start running.

“I think this is a really good opportunity for the county to make progress in getting people out of their vehicles,” said Angela Nicholson, a Marin County assistant county administrator.

The business leaders say SMART matters not only for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gases but also because it could improve the quality of life for their employees. That especially relates to those making the arduous commute by freeway between the two counties.

As such, supporting the train could make it easier for participating companies to attract and retain good workers.

For their part, SMART officials acknowledged the train system needs the involvement of the business community.

“This is a commuter rail service,” said Jake Mackenzie, a SMART director and the vice chairman of the Rohnert Park City Council. “It’s of the greatest importance.”

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, called it “crucial to have a very strong business base where their employees would be riding SMART.”

The business effort follows the setting of fares last month by the SMART board of directors. The decision has generated considerable public criticism from those who say the regular fares are too high.

A one-way fare from Santa Rosa to San Rafael is set at $9.50 one way, or $19 round-trip.

At the same meeting, the board approved the annual Eco-Pass as the sole discount option for the average commuter.

SMART officials are hoping that companies, chambers and other institutions will buy them for workers or members.

The unlimited-ride pass gives the biggest discounts off full fare to commuters who ride the greatest distances among SMART’s five fare zones and who obtain passes from the largest bulk buyers. The more passes a company or group buys, the lower the price for each one.

For example, a rider from Santa Rosa to San Rafael who gets the annual pass from a buyer of 500-plus passes would pay $1,856 a year. That amounts to a savings of 62 percent off the regular fare total of $4,845, using SMART’s assumption of 255 work-day round trips.

But a similar rider from Petaluma to Santa Rosa or Novato to San Rafael with a buyer of 50 or fewer passes would spend $2,553 for the annual service, a savings of just 9 percent off the $11 full round-trip fare. The savings diminish with fewer rides, and those who make fewer than 232 round trips a year actually would be paying more by committing to an annual pass.

SMART spokeswoman Jeanne Mariani-Belding said such a comparison between full fares and the Eco-Pass was “too limited a construct” because it fails to consider those who regularly use the pass for other trips or who could commute by train to two jobs.

“Even for the 9-5 commuter, there’s still excellent value here,” she said.

By all accounts, the commuters with the biggest potential benefit from SMART are those who now drive on weekdays through the Novato Narrows, the 7-mile strip of Highway 101 between Novato and Petaluma. Some suggested the commute in recent years is taking longer, in part because of ongoing construction projects that are part of the effort to expand the highway there to six lanes from four.

“It’s horrible,” Carol Russell, a SMART director and a Cloverdale city councilwoman, said of that commute. “What would you give to have an extra half hour in the morning and half hour in the evening?”

Toward that end, the Novato Chamber of Commerce and some of the city’s major employers spent 18 months examining what it would take to operate shuttles, said chamber President Coy Smith. Participants included the Buck Institute, Birkenstock, Bio Marin and Ultragenix.

The chamber concluded it couldn’t operate shuttles for its members.

“We don’t have the bandwidth to do it ourselves,” Smith said.

Instead, the Novato and San Rafael chamber are working to compile key information about transit benefit options into “tool kits” for businesses, he said. Meanwhile, several Marin employers are looking into operating their own shuttles.

In Santa Rosa, Coe and the chamber get credit for starting the conversation about shuttles.

“We’re grateful that the chamber has convened this group of large employers,” said David Ebright, a Kaiser spokesman.

Both Ebright and Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador said one challenge is that many of their hospital workers have different schedules, including night and weekend shifts, than typical tech and government workers.

One question in regard to the Santa Rosa shuttles is who would pay for the service.

If the chamber operates the shuttles, they likely will be free to the workers and paid for by the employers, Coe said. Earlier in his career, he said, he helped operate a ski shuttle and learned that charging passengers anything for the service triggered a much more complicated set of government regulations.

The shuttle issue highlights a challenge that a suburban rail system like SMART faces. A new national study shows that most transit riders have a relatively simple means of making the first and last miles of their journeys: They use their feet.

Half of all riders walk to and from their buses, subways and trains, according to the study released last week by TransitCenter, a New York foundation that studies urban mobility. For those who regularly use transit for work and other purposes, that figure rises to 80 percent.

Most other regular transit users drive to a station. Only 2.5 percent of those riding transit four or more times a week use a bicycle, taxi or online car service like Uber.

“I think it’s incredibly important to emphasize the connection between transit and walking,” said Steven Higashide, the study’s lead author. “Walking is dominant, and it’s especially dominant for all-purpose transit riders.”

Shuttles may help, but transit systems will “miss on the low-hanging fruit” if communities fail to make the walk easier for commuters living within a half-mile of stations, Higashide said. People won’t walk if routes are too circuitous or the trek involves “dodging cars or taking your life into your hands.”

Existing state law requires Bay Area employers with 50 or more full-time workers to provide a “commute benefit” program that offers employee at least one of a variety of options. The alternatives include van pools, a subsidy of at least $75 a month or a “pretax option” program that exempts workers’ transit passes from state and federal income tax.

Most participating employers choose the pretax option. The reason is simple, said Rebecca Long, manager of government affairs for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“It’s the one that saves them money,” Long explained. Companies get a break from payroll taxes on the pretax earnings of workers.

Employers are just starting to learn about SMART’s offerings. As such, most can’t say yet what they will offer their workers.

An exception is Oregon-based Umpqua Bank, with offices in both Sonoma and Marin counties. It will reimburse its employees’ transit expenses up to $125 a month, said executive vice president Eve Callahan.

In the coming months, SMART officials hope to speak with hundreds of local companies and colleges, Mansourian said.

The chamber’s possible involvement in Eco-Pass could allow many “mom-and-pop” businesses with a handful of employees to get a larger discount when buying the annual pass, Mansourian said.

Among the questions still to be answered on the Eco-Pass is whether companies must pay up front for the entire year’s cost or if it can be paid in installments.

Mansourian acknowledged some business owners have told him about the pass, “We love this but we can’t afford $2,000 (per pass).” He said in return he has asked what payment approach would meet their needs.

“I have said we’ll work with you,” Mansourian said.

Both businesses and workers will get more detailed answers in the coming months, SMART officials said.

Some will want to see how well SMART works before committing to an annual pass. But business leaders said once the trains start running, they expect employees will begin lobbying companies for new benefits.

Smith, of the Novato chamber, envisions workers saying, “Hey, I want to get on this train. I see it whizzing by me as I’m sitting on the freeway.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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