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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.”

Commuters are “going to love SMART,” she said.

Still, representatives of several major North Bay companies said it’s too early to judge by the schedule SMART released how widely workers will embrace the train system.

A “sizeble number” of the 1,300 employees at Keysight Technologies — the largest company headquartered in Sonoma County — expressed interest in riding the train in surveys conducted prior to the release of fares and the train schedule, spokesman Jeff Weber said.

Keysight and Medtronic, another major county employer, are in Fountaingrove, about five miles from SMART’s Guerneville Road station. Weber said the companies are still evaluating whether to provide shuttle service for employees to and from the trains.

Lisa Amador, a spokeswoman for Sutter Health, pointed to challenges coming up with a train schedule that meet the needs of hospital employees, who work all manner of hours.

“The proof is really going to happen as soon as the launch happens,” Amador said. “I think it will take some time for people to understand what their opportunities are in terms of new ways to commute to work. And SMART is a new way.”

The green and gray trains, which operate in pairs, feature on-board Wi-Fi, space for storing bicycles and food and beverage service, including beer and wine.

Julia Giammona said and she’s looking forward to riding the trains from her home in Rohnert Park to Novato, where she works as a lactation consultant at Tamalpais Pediatrics.

Giammona said the trains aren’t perfectly synced up with her work schedule. She will end up getting to work about a half-hour early and arrive home later than were she to drive.

“But in my opinion, not having to sit in traffic is worth it for me!” she said in an email. “It’s so stressful and aggravating.”

John Oblad, a software engineer for Autodesk who commutes from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, said the 90-minute gaps without train service mean he’ll have to keep on driving.

“I don’t know who SMART thinks the target commuter is, but I always thought it was me,” Oblad said in an email.

The gaps occur in both the morning and early evening hours. For instance, southbound trains arrive in downtown Santa Rosa at the Railroad Square station every half-hour on weekdays, starting at 5:01 a.m. through 6:31 a.m. But after that, the next southbound train does not depart the station until 8:01 a.m.

In the evenings, no trains depart downtown Santa Rosa heading north between 5:54 p.m. and 7:24 p.m.

SMART officials say the schedule reflects commute patterns in the two counties.

But the 90-minute gap with no trains arriving at the downtown San Rafael station in Marin County between 7:26 a.m. and 8:56 a.m. means Creighton Fung and his son are likely to continue driving to work from Petaluma along congested Highway 101.

Creighton Fung is a graphic artist with BioMarin in San Rafael. His son, Michael Fung, is the sample room manager at Ciatti Wine Brokers. Their offices are within walking distance of SMART’s San Rafael station.

To get to work on time using SMART, the pair would have to catch the 6:55 a.m. southbound train from downtown Petaluma, which would put them in San Rafael a half-hour before work. Unless they left work early, the earliest train they could use for the ride home departs San Rafael at 6:29 p.m., which would put them in Petaluma around 7. That’s an hour or more later than when they usually get home.

“I doubt we will be using it,” Fung said.

It’s unclear why SMART’s schedule includes the 90-minute gaps, which were not part of the conversation when the agency’s directors reviewed a draft proposal in April last year. That draft showed trains arriving and departing at 30-minute intervals across-the-board during peak commute hours.

Farhad Mansourian, the agency’s general manager, presented the updated schedule to directors at the start of their bi-monthly meeting in Petaluma Wednesday. He did not offer a direct explanation for why the time gaps have been introduced.

Mansourian told directors SMART “can’t run every 30 minutes all day and all afternoon. We don’t have enough equipment and enough engineers.”

SMART had said it would operate six two-car trains on the rail line during passenger service and keep one train in reserve. Now, according to Mansourian, the rail agency will operate four trains, which leaves it with three trains in reserve.

Mansourian did not respond Thursday and Friday to several requests for comment.

The schedule discussion Wednesday followed a report on SMART’s finances.

SMART’s projected overall budget of $100 million for the coming fiscal year starting July 1 includes $37 million in capital costs, $14 million in debt service and $18 million in salaries and benefits. The agency projects operating reserves of $17 million, an amount equal to roughly 35 percent of the operations and administration budget, including debt service. SMART also has $10 million in capital reserves.

The agency forecasts an operating deficit of $2.9 million, due in part to delay in the start of passenger service tied in part to engine problems on the trains and the loss of potential fare revenue. Officials say the deficit should be covered once full fare service starts in September and money from the state’s recently enacted transportation taxes and fees kick in.

Some officials say the announced schedule opens SMART to additional criticism that it is falling short of what was promised to voters.

“If you put something out to voters and ask them to trust you, and to vote for it, you need to fulfill it,” Sonoma County Supervisor and SMART Director David Rabbitt said. “At the same time, if you are working toward that, and it will take a bit of time to get there, I think people will be open to that.”

For Mast, that window of time is now. The Novato engineer has been waiting for years to ride SMART, his anticipation growing by the sight of trains he can see from an office window.

“The slowdown through the Narrows is not going away anytime soon. And I think many people who live in one county and work in another have been looking to SMART as a solution,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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