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Plans are underway for the North Bay’s new commuter rail system to be outfitted with as many as 200 bicycles for use by SMART riders getting to and from stations and their final destinations.

A joint proposal by Sonoma and Marin counties netted more than $800,000 in grant funding last month from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Once the money is disbursed, it will help launch the first large-scale, taxpayer-funded bike share program in the region — at train stops in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Petaluma, as well as Novato, San Rafael and the eventual Larkspur station now under construction.

The financial boost comes as SMART, now into its fourth month of operation between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, faces an unexpected surge in riders bringing their bikes aboard, straining space on some trains. The bike share program, which if everything goes smoothly will be ready in mid-2019, could help ease that crunch, according to local transportation planners.

“The direction that we’re looking at is really to add another first- and last-mile solution between SMART and nearby destinations,” said Dana Turrey, a planner with the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “There’s been a larger number of bicycles trying to get on the trains than was expected, so we’re really seeing this as another way to get back and forth to and from the train and on short trips without using a car.”

On average through its first month of service, passengers brought as many as 300 bikes aboard SMART trains every weekday, while fewer than 100 made the trip on Saturdays or Sundays. SMART officials expected the opposite — more bike riders on weekends than weekdays. That dynamic has only bolstered the regional transportation authority’s prior plans to develop a bike share program that could free up space on trains if riders left their bikes at home and instead borrowed a loaner at the station.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority also looks to make good on an updated comprehensive plan it adopted last year that aims to hit greenhouse gas emission reduction goals by keeping more vehicles off the roads. The convenience of the bike share program for SMART riders is a nice side benefit, Turrey said.

In October, Santa Cruz announced a 250-bike, GPS-enabled fleet will be rolled out in March similar to the popular programs that already exist in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. Healdsburg, which is set to get its own SMART station as part of the railway’s planned expansion in the coming years, became the first city in Sonoma County to create a short-term public rental system when it signed off on a $54,000, 30-bike network in July.

Sonoma County representatives welcomed the MTC grant and look forward to a day when the bike share program will offer another transit option for SMART riders.

“Santa Rosa has a bicycling culture and people are used to riding bikes to get from one place to another, and this will just enhance that,” said Mayor Chris Coursey, a SCTA board member and former SMART spokesman. “We understand not everybody is going from one station to another, and for that last mile at the end of the trip people need to have other transportation, whether it’s feet, bus or bike.”

Initially, the program was intended to start in late 2018, at the earliest. Key details are still to be determined, including whether it will be a point-to-point or freestanding system and if there will be a rental fee.

“We’re a wee bit aways of actually seeing bikes on the road, as it were,” said Jake Mackenzie, the outgoing Rohnert Park mayor who serves as MTC chairman and is a board member for both SMART and the SCTA. “But we’re excited to see what the possibilities are, particularly with connections between Sonoma State University and the two stations in Cotati and Rohnert Park, because that’s a missing link at the moment.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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