Two decades after the concept of bringing commuter rail service to the North Bay started gathering steam, the first set of trains operated by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority pulled into the Cotati station Tuesday to cheers from hundreds of spectators.
Skeptics doubted whether such a day ever would arrive, given the myriad financial and regulatory hurdles the rail authority had to overcome to reach the historic milestone. Significant questions remain prior to passenger service starting, currently set for December 2016.
But on Tuesday morning, beneath stormy skies, such doubts were mostly set aside as two gray and green rail cars bearing the SMART insignia pulled into the packed station with horns blaring.
“It wasn’t that long ago that people were saying this project wouldn’t come to fruition,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “And now, it is.”
Seated inside one of the rail cars, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of SMART’s board of directors, acknowledged the rail agency’s “trials and tribulations,” which he said have included issues with the electorate and construction delays.
“But seeing this car really lets you know that this is moving forward,” Rabbitt said.
The debut of the diesel-powered rail cars comes two decades after a study that envisioned the service, 13 years after the state Legislature created the SMART district and seven years after voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the project.
Numerous challenges threatened to derail the project along the way, including funding shortfalls that forced officials to scale back the project’s initial scope, a threatened ballot initiative in 2012 that could have overturned the sales tax and disputes between city and county officials and SMART representatives over governance and planning.
Farhad Mansourian, the rail authority’s general manager, struck a defiant tone Tuesday after the hourlong ceremony, saying he “has no answer” for people who continue to doubt the rail service’s viability.
“I say, ‘Get on board,’ ” he said.
His enthusiasm was matched by Rohnert Park City Councilman and SMART director Jake Mackenzie, who said he has “every confidence” the rail authority will be operating passenger rail service by the end of next year.
That service initially will include a 42-mile segment from downtown San Rafael to north of Santa Rosa. SMART is planning to operate seven two-car units along the route, with officials saying it will take under an hour to traverse.
The slope-nosed cars, called Diesel Multiple Units, run in pairs, with the ability to have a third car added in between to increase capacity. Each car has 79 seats, with standing room available for about 80 people. The cars also feature space for bicycles, Wi-Fi service and, in some cases, snack and beverage bars.
Charlotte Shiffman, whose family lives in a condominium on Santero Way a short distance from the Cotati station, said she’s looking forward to hopping aboard the train with her three boys for adventures along the route. She brought along her 4-year-old son, Ronan, on Tuesday to check out the rail cars.
Alan Nelson, a Sebastopol resident who described himself as a semi-retired charter bus driver, also expressed enthusiasm about the new rail line.
“I’m really glad to see it’s finally here,” he said. “It’s going to help us with our traffic situation on Highway 101.”