With the start of North Bay passenger rail service expected to be just around the bend, public transit planners across Sonoma and Marin counties are busy trying to link up connections to the trains.
One of the more recent efforts involves Sonoma County Transit — operator of the county’s bus system — which on Monday unveiled new routes and a number of changes to existing ones to coordinate with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit trains.
The new “50-series” routes include connections to SMART stations from all corners of the county, as well as two “last-mile” shuttle buses for employees at the Airport Business Park, Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and the county’s administration center. Shuttles also will be available for Santa Rosa Junior College students.
Janice Thompson, a county roads engineer who has commuted to work in Santa Rosa from her home in Rohnert Park for more than two decades, said she’s anxious to use the SMART trains as an alternative to driving on Highway 101.
She plans to catch the train in Cotati to arrive at the Guerneville Road station at 7:35 a.m. From there, it’s a 10-minute shuttle bus ride to her office at the county’s administration center.
Thompson said the evening shuttles are not as convenient for her schedule, getting her home after 6 p.m. But she said depending on how it goes she may use the trains and buses every day.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” Thompson said.
Schedules for about half of the county’s 23 bus routes were adjusted to accommodate the new SMART connections, according to Sonoma County Transit Authority manager Bryan Albee.
The changes were announced a few days prior to going into effect Monday. The short notice apparently caught some longtime bus riders off-guard, including one man who criticized the county’s actions as “very unprofessional” in an email he sent to The Press Democrat.
Albee blamed the short notice on delays printing the new schedule and the recent July 4 holiday. He also referenced changes SMART made to the train schedules after the rail agency and transit planners had already settled on a plan. Those revisions followed public outcry over 90-minute gaps at certain hours of peak demand for train service.
“Typically we like to have schedule changes out a week ahead, but with the holiday week and the timing of such a big change we were later than we intended it,” Albee said.
He said the new routes were launched Monday because county transit planners expected SMART would be operating passenger service by then. But that date remains uncertain.
The rail agency said it is waiting on final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to begin full operations. In the meantime, the public is being offered “preview rides” on a limited basis.
Albee said the new SMART routes can be adjusted based on rider feedback, and that more transfers will be offered as more trains go into service.
“It’s a big change, and we’ve been anticipating the train for a long time,” Albee said. “We’ve been putting out additional services and we’re anxious to see how it works.”
The four new connector routes to SMART stations include:
Route 52, which operates along the Highway 116 corridor between downtown Sebastopol and downtown Cotati. The route includes stops at the Cotati Depot, Sonoma Mountain Village and Sonoma State University.
Route 53, which departs Sonoma Plaza in the morning and heads west, arriving at the downtown Petaluma SMART station for the departing 7:55 a.m. train. During the afternoon commute, two eastbound buses will meet SMART trains at 4:30 and 6 p.m. for the return trip to Sonoma.
Route 54, which starts at Coddingtown and makes two trips during the morning commute period to connect with southbound SMART trains in Rohnert Park and Petaluma. Two trips will be offered in the afternoon for the return connection.
Route 56 will provide connections to SMART’s Airport Boulevard station from Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
In addition, the county is offering two shuttle buses for “last-mile” connections between SMART trains and work locations in and near Santa Rosa.
The Route 55 shuttle will navigate the Airport Business Park and also stop at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. On weekday mornings, the bus will meet arriving northbound trains at 7:06, 7:36 and 8:06 a.m. In the afternoon, two trips will coordinate with southbound trains departing at 5:19 and 5:49 p.m.
The Route 57 shuttle provides connections from Santa Rosa’s Guerneville Road SMART station with Kaiser Permanente Hospital and the county’s administration center. During the morning commute, the shuttle will meet trains arriving at 7:29 and 7:59 a.m.
The latter shuttle also will serve Santa Rosa Junior College. In the evening, students can use a shuttle connecting to the 5:26 p.m. southbound train departure.
A full breakdown of the new routes and schedules is available here.
The projected cost of operating the new SMART routes is $554,561 for this fiscal year. SMART is picking up about half that amount, with the rest coming from state and regional grants and passenger fares.
SMART’s share subsidizes the cost of the bus from the north county, where train service is years off. Albee said passengers won’t be charged to ride that bus so long as they connect with trains. Their Clipper card will record the transfer.
Full-fare bus passengers who connect with trains from elsewhere in the county receive a $1.50 transfer discount. Seniors, the disabled and others who already receive reduced fares will receive an additional 75 cent transfer discount.
Ninety percent of the county’s workforce — or roughly 3,700 employees — commutes to work by driving alone in their personal vehicles, according to an annual county survey. The county estimates that if all employees devoted a single day out of their week to using public transit or other “clean” options for their commute greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 20 percent and employees collectively would save more than $800,000 in annual fuel costs.
But getting people to use the trains may be a challenge. Only 4 percent of county employees who responded to a 2017 SMART survey stated they would use the trains on a regular basis.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.