Will Mast’s office in Novato is so close to a Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit station that he can hear bells ringing on the trains as they stop and go during test runs.
The sound was a promising one for Mast, an environmental engineer who lives in Petaluma, portending relief from his brutal weekday commute on Highway 101. But now the bells taunt him.
The schedule for passenger service that SMART released this week doesn’t have commute-time intervals that will mesh well with his 8-to-5 job. He’d have to catch the 6:55 a.m. train in downtown Petaluma, which would put him at the San Marin station in Novato an hour early; the next southbound train at the Petaluma station doesn’t arrive until 8:25 am. In the evening, he’d either have to leave work early to make the 5:19 p.m. train or wait for the next one, at 6:49 p.m., which would get him home after 7.
“I’m disappointed,” Mast said at his office on Friday, two days after SMART released its planned schedule. “I have been going under the impression, as I believe have many, that this was intended to be a solution for commuters. And I think that SMART is failing in that obligation.”
SMART, which is expected to launch passenger service next month, bills itself primarily as commuter rail and a solution to congestion on Highway 101, which mostly parallels the tracks running from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael.
Along with fares, the schedule for when trains operate is a critical component of SMART capturing customers it needs to raise revenue to support the taxpayer-funded system and make it a viable operation. And as was the case with fares, setting the operational timetable involves a myriad of options and complex calculations, matching trains with other public transportation services, including buses and ferries.
SMART officials say the schedule they’ve settled upon will meet most commuters’ needs. They also stress the timetable can be adjusted once they get a better sense of how people are engaging with what amounts to a brand-new transit service.
“People are used to driving in traffic and getting somewhere a minute before they need to get there, if they’re lucky,” said Deb Fudge, Windsor’s mayor and chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors. She said with SMART, commuters “are going to have time to get to a train, work on a train, get to their destination, walk to where they need to go, have coffee and slow down a bit, and still spend less time commuting.”
But critics, including people flooding SMART’s social media sites in the wake of Wednesday’s release, say the timetable falls short of expectations. In particular, they point to several 90-minute gaps in the schedule during peak commute hours on weekdays.
Some also point to the 2008 ballot measure North Bay voters approved to support the rail initiative that stated passenger service would be delivered at 30-minute intervals during “rush hours.” A 2014 strategic plan for the system also stated that trains would be “spread across the morning and evening commute hours with roughly 30-minute headways,” and that trains would travel approximately 30 minutes apart.
Fudge, in responding to concerns SMART is not living up to what it promised voters, said Measure Q, the voter-approved sales tax, “described a rail service as we envisioned it 10 years ago. Today we are dealing with all the complications and realities that go along with building and operating a new state of the art passenger train.”