Rail passenger service in the North Bay appears on track to begin by at least this summer, according to SMART officials, who moved Wednesday to approve new fees for people who park at the agency’s lots to take the train.
But before passenger service can start, federal authorities must sign off on safety standards for all 63 rail crossings along the initial 42-mile route from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael, according to Farhad Mansourian, the rail agency’s general manager. He said eight of the crossings still need work to meet those standards.
Also, SMART has taken ownership of 14 trains that needed their engines replaced because of a design flaw, he said.
Mansourian told SMART’s board of directors Wednesday in Petaluma that he is “very, very happy with where we are” on train testing. But he did not commit to a firm start date for passenger service, saying he will provide another update next month.
That will be cutting it close to the agency’s previously announced goal of starting service by late spring. Summer begins June 21 and that date is nearly six months after SMART delayed the start of service due in part to the train engine problems.
In the meantime, rail officials continue setting parameters for how passenger service will operate and what it will cost riders.
The SMART board Wednesday unanimously approved a parking fee of $2 a day, or $20 a month, at park-and-ride lots owned and operated by the rail agency.
Currently, that includes lots at three stations: Rohnert Park, Novato near Hamilton Parkway and Novato at Atherton Avenue/San Marin Drive.
The stations have parking for 264 vehicles. SMART also is planning an additional 50 parking spaces each at the downtown Petaluma station and a station near the Sonoma County Airport.
SMART projects a daily ridership of 3,070 and about 300 on each weekend day.
Jennifer Welch, SMART’s police chief, said the parking fees are necessary to deter people who are not riding the trains from parking in the lots and to identify vehicles left overnight or for extended periods of time.
The board ultimately agreed with that assessment after some back-and-forth on the timing of the fees.
SMART will offer free rides aboard trains from the time service starts through July 4, followed by a period of half-price rides through Labor Day.
The rail agency’s directors last year approved a $3.50 base fare and $2 charge for each zone line crossed, which equates to an average overall fare of $5.25 with discounts factored in. Without discounts, the average fare is $7.50. Discounts will offer lower fares for youth, seniors, veterans, college students and disabled riders, as well as commuters who get their tickets in bulk through employers.
SMART board member and Novato Councilman Eric Lucan suggested waiving parking fees during the period of free train rides. He later voted in support of charging from the start after other directors argued otherwise.
SMART director and Rohnert Park Mayor Jake Mackenzie said residents near the Rohnert Park Expressway station are already using the lot as overflow parking.
“My feeling is once service starts, we need a parking system in place,” Mackenzie said.