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Friday ceremony in Santa Rosa marks start of full SMART rail service

A SMART train on a test run pulls into the Sonoma County Airport platform along Airport Boulevard in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG/ PD)

PAUL PAYNE,

The North Bay’s “golden spike” moment — the official return of passenger rail service after 59 years — is expected to kick off Friday with a ceremony drawing large crowds to Santa Rosa’s downtown station for speeches and inaugural rides.

Officials with the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency say the event marking the opening of the long-awaited commuter train will begin promptly at 9:30 a.m. People who wish to see it should plan on arriving at least 30 minutes early and use the Seventh Street parking garage with its free shuttle service to the station, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

Federal, state and local officials will speak before a Japanese blessing of the line’s green and gray rail cars and a traditional ribbon-cutting. The official list of speakers includes U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, state Sen. Mike McGuire and California’s secretary of transportation, Brian P. Kelly.

The historic event was drawing tongue-in-cheek comparisons to the laying of the Transcontinental Railroad and other transportation milestones.

“This is our Panama Canal,” Mansourian said Thursday, referring to opening of the waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. “The biggest part of tomorrow is the beginning of passenger rail service for the North Bay.”

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Those who want to experience it firsthand will have their chance. At precisely 12:49 p.m., the first of the diesel-powered trains will roll south from the Sonoma County Airport station on Airport Boulevard.

The first northbound train will leave the San Rafael station at 2:29 p.m.

All rides Friday will be free, and fares will be half price through Labor Day on Sept. 4, introducing the public to a $600 million transit system that officials project will carry up to 3,000 people on weekdays over a 43-mile line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

It’s been 15 years since the state Legislature created SMART, nine years since Sonoma and Marin voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to subsidize the rail service in 2008 and five years since SMART began restoring the old rail line in 2012.

Delays, controversies and a severe recession that curtailed tax revenues have marked SMART’s short life, which has been guided by Mansourian since he was named its boss by the public agency’s board in 2011.

With an annual budget of about $30 million and about 180 employees, SMART operates from the second floor of a new office building on Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma.

The nascent rail line is a work in progress, with plans to complete the planned 70-mile system from Cloverdale to Larkspur on a timetable that Mansourian said depends on additional funding, largely from state and regional sources.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, who also is expected to speak at the opening ceremony, said the train is a key component of a regional vision to spur city-centered development and preserve open spaces.

“SMART is part of a much bigger idea to create more opportunities for walkable communities and to give people options that don’t include getting into cars,” Coursey said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.