The North Bay’s long-awaited commuter train will begin rolling on a regular schedule next week, restoring passenger rail service after a nearly 60-year absence in the region.
Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials announced Thursday that service along the initial 43-mile line from the Sonoma County Airport station to San Rafael will begin Aug. 25 — a day when commuters, travelers and everyone else can ride the refurbished rails for free.
Fares will continue to be half price for the following 10 days, through Labor Day on Sept. 4. SMART will host a community grand opening at 9 a.m. Aug. 25 at its downtown Santa Rosa station in Railroad Square. The full-service schedule will begin running at 12:49 p.m., the first of nine southbound departures from the airport station at 1130 Airport Blvd.
Debora Fudge, chairwoman of the SMART board of directors and a veteran advocate of the decades- long effort to restore rail service in the region, said nothing could keep her from boarding the first diesel-powered green and gray car.
“We are just beyond excited,” Fudge said Thursday from SMART’s Petaluma headquarters, where transit district staffers toasted the day’s news with sparkling apple cider.
“It’s the beginning of a new era of transportation for the whole North Bay,” said Fudge, the Windsor mayor and a member of SMART’s board for more than 12 years. “A generational change for travel between two counties. It’s a red-letter day.”
Planning for SMART dates back to the 1990s, Fudge said, and the $600 million transit system, billed as an option to the grinding commute on Highway 101, overcame numerous obstacles, including the recession that struck in 2008, crimping cash flow to the young agency months after voters had approved the sales tax that funds the system.
The state Legislature had created SMART in 2002, and the sales tax had been rejected by voters in 2006 before they authorized it two years later.
The financial blow prompted what SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said was the board’s most difficult decision: building the line in phases, starting with Santa Rosa to San Rafael, instead of the full 70-mile route from Cloverdale to Larkspur.
Mansourian, who was hired as general manager in 2011, said it has taken “several thousand days” to complete the first segment, providing a transit option “not only for today but for generations to come.”
“You can be stuck in traffic on Highway 101 or riding on a beautiful train” that offers Wi-Fi, food and beverages, and “gorgeous scenery,” he said.
“If it fits your schedule, it’s the way to go,” Mansourian said. “It’s up to you.”
Passenger service on the old Northwestern Pacific rail line ended in 1958. SMART began restoring the rails in 2012.
The green light to start service next week came Wednesday in an email from the Federal Railroad Administration saying it had completed a review of SMART’s positive train control system, which automatically shuts down service to prevent emergencies, such as derailments, caused by excessive speed.
That review was the last hurdle that had prompted SMART to postpone a startup date that had been tentatively set for late spring after being pushed back from late last year. Another factor in the delay, Mansourian said, was SMART’s decision to replace the engines on all 14 rail cars it owns because of a faulty crankshaft design.
Mansourian, who formerly was Marin County’s public works director, said he never doubted the rail line would come to fruition.
“I knew it was a great public works project,” he said. “It was just a matter of resolving issues and moving forward. Failure was not an option.”
Whether SMART can achieve its goal of carrying 3,000 weekday riders remains to be seen.
Critics have faulted the schedule, which includes some 90-minute gaps between trains, and the relatively small number of parking spaces at some stations.
Considerable dismay followed the SMART board’s approval last summer of a fare schedule that included a $9.50 one-way or $19 round trip from downtown Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Discounts are available to youth, seniors, students, disabled riders and commuters who get their tickets in bulk through employers. A 31-day pass for adults without a discount is $200.
“We’re confident that we’re going to have very full trains,” Fudge said, noting that SMART has ordered four more cars, bringing the total to 18.
Jack Swearingen of Santa Rosa, chairman of Friends of SMART, a nonprofit founded in the 1990s, said he has been besieged by questions from friends about when the trains would roll.
“The culmination of a long dream,” he said, noting that he has grandchildren in San Francisco anxious to ride the rails to visit him.
Swearingen said his group, by coincidence, met Wednesday to discuss its future role in supporting SMART.
Mansourian said he may take a vacation at some point, then get to work on building SMART’s missing links, starting with the line to Larkspur, near the Golden Gate ferry terminal, scheduled for completion in 2019. The extension north to Windsor is targeted for 2021, with Healdsburg and Cloverdale still unscheduled, he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457. or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.