A horn blast from a modern train car at Santa Rosa’s downtown station and cheers from an enthusiastic crowd of waiting riders signaled the return Friday — after a six-decade absence — of passenger rail service in the North Bay and the dawn of a new travel option meant to relieve traffic along the clogged Highway 101 corridor and remake transit-oriented development.
The $600 million Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train rolled to a start in a pomp-filled ceremony that drew hundreds to glimpse the shiny new cars as they made their inaugural run along the 43-mile route connecting Santa Rosa and San Rafael.
Amid orange, green and white bunting to match SMART’s colors and music from a mariachi band, federal, state and local officials hailed the system as a major Bay Area transportation milestone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, all aboard the SMART train!” boomed Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, from in front of one of the sleek green and gray trains at Railroad Square station.
Crowds stepped onto the elevated platform, joining SMART workers and elected officials on two short trips, before the start of regularly scheduled service. The system will operate 14 trains and 34 weekday trips carrying a projected 3,000 people.
Riders were overjoyed Friday at the arrival of the taxpayer-funded, voter-approved train system.
“It’s fantastic,” said Lori O’Donnell, a Rohnert Park resident who plans to commute on the train to her job at Bio Marin in San Rafael. “This has been needed for many years.”
Roy Domke boarded the inaugural trip to the northernmost station near the Sonoma County Airport. Domke, 79, said he was on the last passenger train between San Rafael and Eureka in 1958.
“This is smoother and it has great amenities,” he said, pointing to the coffee bar and bathroom. “You don’t get that clickety-clack. And you can’t smell the coal and oil.”
Some voiced dismay that SMART’s arrival in cities to the north, including Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale, is years away. Others doubted the line would be as popular as projected, citing the cost of fares and connections needed to link to other transit systems.
“The train is so slow,” said Gisella Cano, a Santa Rosa teacher and recent transplant from Barcelona as she took an inaugural ride, her bicycle hanging from an onboard rack.
But Neena Hanchett, president of the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce, said she felt assured by pledges from officials the line would someday extend the full 70 miles, from Larkspur to Cloverdale, as originally promised.
The extension to Larkspur and ferries serving San Francisco is planned for 2019. The service plans to reach Windsor by 2021. In Healdsburg, additional funding is needed to replace the antiquated rail bridge over the Russian River, making officials reluctant to announce a planned service date.
“We’re confident it will be coming,” said Hanchett, who wore a T-shirt inscribed with “Explore Cloverdale.” “It’s going to move our people south without going on 101.”
Rides Friday were free, and fares will be half-price through Labor Day on Sept. 4.
On the drawing board for decades, the passenger rail system has been nearly 15 years in the official making. The Legislature created SMART in 2002, and Marin and Sonoma county voters in 2008 approved a quarter-cent sales tax to subsidize the rail service. SMART began restoring the moth-balled Northwestern Pacific rail line in 2012.
Along the way, it encountered numerous delays, including those created by a decline in tax revenue caused by the recession.
Rep. Jared Huffman, who spoke at the opening, said he’d been to a number of ceremonies for stages of the project, including welding a golden shovel at the first groundbreaking and smashing champagne bottles on new rail cars.
“But we’re finally at the big ceremony that we’ve all been looking forward to, the start of service,” said Huffman, D-San Rafael.
He praised the residents of Sonoma and Marin counties “for having the foresight and the courage to move forward with such an ambitious and important project.”
In addition to being the first rail service to serve the North Bay since 1958, SMART is the first new transit system to be built in the Bay Area since the 1970s, Huffman said.
“To quote our former Vice President Joe Biden, that’s a BFD. The F stands for ‘fat.’ That’s all,” he said.
The transit agency led by general manager Farhad Mansourian has a $30 annual million budget and 180 employees. Many speakers praised Mansourian for his leadership and determination.
“They said we are the little engine that could,” Mansourian told the crowd in his address. “No. We are the little engine that did!”
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey noted the effort to restore regional rail service stretches back to the 1980s, and involved thousands of supporters. He credited their “perseverance and insistence.”
“The North Bay has talked about this for decades,” said Coursey, a former Press Democrat writer who also worked as a SMART spokesman. “Today it arrives.”
The start of service, originally set for 2014, was delayed by a severe recession that curtailed tax revenue and several other setbacks, including repair of the agency’s new fleet of engines because of a faulty crankshaft design.
Dennis Rosatti, the former executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, said it was gratifying to see a day finally arrive that he and others had worked toward for so long.
“I’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors for this personally,” Rosatti said, recalling the political campaigns — the first, in 2006, failed and the second, in 2008, succeeded — that his group lent grassroots support.
The difference between the two ballot measures, Rosatti said, was the intervening spike in gas prices to $4 per gallon, plus growing concern about climate change, and congestion on Highway 101.
“We had a public that was just clamoring for relief on the highways,” Rosatti said.
Friday’s event included a Japanese Daruma doll blessing of the Japanese-made rail cars and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting.
The jubilant atmosphere even spilled out into the neighboring historic Railroad Square shopping area, which has high hopes the service will provide an economic boom for the area.
“Welcome to the neighborhood, SMART Train,” read a sign with balloons outside the Legendary Beads shop.
Shop owner Jody McDonnell said she’s already seeing an influx of people drawn to the district by the train. She said she hopes the start of service and arrival of the promised new housing around the station continues to boost and diversify her customer base.
“Even when we had the preview rides, all of a sudden there would be 12 people in the store, saying ‘We came here to ride the train,’ ” McDonnell said.
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.