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Getting to and from local rail stations could one day be as easy as riding a bike if Sonoma and Marin counties win a $1 million grant to set up a regional bike sharing program.

Transportation planners from both counties are hoping that funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will allow them to build a network of about 180 rentable bicycles.

The bikes are viewed not only as a way to help people shift to a low-impact form of transportation, but also to make it easier for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit riders to get from rail stations to their next destination.

“Bike share programs offer the option for that last mile that makes transportation trips even more appealing,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

The SCTA and its counterpart to the south, the Transportation Authority of Marin, are jointly applying for about half of the approximately $2 million the MTC has made available for such programs in suburban areas, said Derek McGill, planning manager for the Transportation Authority of Marin.

While bike share programs have been very effective in urban areas, there is interest in seeing if they can be successfully rolled out in smaller cities, McGill said.

If approved, the funds would be used to purchase the bicycles and install the infrastructure, including GPS technology that would allow riders to track down a bike to rent. Funds to operate the program would come from sponsorships and rental income, he said.

A host of program details — such as what types of bikes, where they would be located, how much they would cost, and who the provider would be — will all be worked out if the grant is approved, which is expected by the end of the year, McGill said.

That would be followed by significant public input next year, he said.

Local matching funds of $131,000 would come from the two agencies, not the individual cities along the rail route.

The Santa Rosa City Council unanimously approved the grant application Tuesday night. Mayor Chris Coursey said the program has the strong support of the SCTA board, of which he is a member.

The move follows Healdsburg’s decision two weeks ago to greenlight its own bike share program, the first city in the county to do so. That effort envisions 30 short-term rental bikes and five docking stations targeting local residents and workers needing to take short trips.

But the SMART proposal would really shift bike sharing in the North Bay into high gear.

A preliminary plan envisioned 100 bikes for Sonoma County and 40 for Marin County, with Santa Rosa getting 40. Initially, however, the city expects to see about 15 bikes spread out over the four locations: the downtown station, Old Courthouse Square, Santa Rosa Junior College, and the North Santa Rosa Station on Guerneville Road, said Jason Nutt, the city’s director of Transportation and Public Works.

Nine of the 10 stations along SMART’s initial 43-mile operating route from San Rafael to the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport would receive bikes. The airport is not slated to be part of the initial program.

Communities are trying other ways to make the train work better for riders. Santa Rosa is planning a shuttle bus that runs between the downtown station, city parking garages and downtown. Major employers are also contemplating shuttle buses.

But bike share programs are exploding in popularity in part because the payment and GPS technologies make it easier than ever, Smith said.

A good example of a person who might use a shared bike is someone who gets off a train and still needs to cover a distance that is “doable but daunting” on foot, Smith said.

A Petaluma resident who wants to commute by rail to Santa Rosa but works about 10 blocks away at the Santa Rosa Federal Building might decide to cut that walk time in half by renting a bike, especially if it’s inexpensive and the pickup and drop-off processes are convenient, she said.

Smith noted that some bike share programs contain locks that allow people to drop off bicycles anywhere. Smartphone apps track the bike locations by GPS and allow people to rent them even if they are not at a kiosk.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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