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SMART’s biggest challenge is coming soon.

The North Bay’s upstart commuter rail service hit a few speed bumps in 2016 as it shifted from construction to testing the 43-mile rail line between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, with a goal of initiating service by the end of the year. Neighbors complained about loud horns. A complex signaling system required adjustments. Train engines were replaced after discovery of a design flaw. As a result, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit postponed the start of service.

SMART now expects to welcome passengers in the late spring.

As it completes the transition from engineering to operations, the biggest unanswered question is this: Will people queue up to ride the sleek green-and-gray trains?

SMART’s goal is attract about 3,000 riders on an average weekday, but high fares could discourage some people from ever getting aboard. So we welcome the SMART board’s decision last week to offer free rides when service begins, followed by a period of discounted fares.

“Once people experience what the SMART train has to offer — a safe, reliable and congestion-free transportation alternative — we’re confident they’ll get on board,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, who chairs the SMART governing board.

We hope she’s right.

But we’re still uneasy about the fare schedule adopted last summer, with round-trip rides ranging from $7 to $23.50. A trip between Santa Rosa and San Rafael will cost $19. A round-trip from Rohnert Park to the Sonoma County airport will be $15. Riding from Petaluma to Novato and back will cost $11. Seniors, students and the disabled will get a 50 percent discount.

Most riders are expected to be commuters who live and work in the North Bay. Once the Larkspur station is open, with a shuttle link to the ferry terminal, SMART hopes to attract tourists headed from San Francisco to Wine Country. They may be less dissuaded by high fares, but they won’t ever be a large proportion of SMART’s ridership. Setting fares to maximize revenue from these riders isn’t a wise approach if those fares are a deterrent for cost-conscious commuters.

SMART defends its fares as comparable to other commuter rail systems. For many local residents, SMART will be their first exposure to rail transit, and there’s bound to be some sticker shock when the promotional period is over. The board needs to pay close attention to ridership and be prepared to reassess its fare schedule, perhaps extending discounted fares, offering resident discounts or offering a wide range of passes to attract regular users to the system.

SMART is adding a monthly unlimited use pass for $200, which works out to $10 a day for a regular commuter. That’s much more affordable than SMART’s initial offering, the annual eco-pass, which ranges from $1,800 to $2,500 a year and is being marketed to big employers.

SMART’s critics are outspoken and unrelenting, but don’t underestimate public support for a North Bay rail transit system.

Measure Q, the quarter-cent sales tax for SMART, passed in 2008 with 69.5 percent of the overall vote — and 73.5 percent in Sonoma County. A rail tax measure got 70 percent of the vote in Sonoma County four years earlier but didn’t carry Marin. By comparison, the tax to widen Highway 101 barely cleared the two-thirds majority for approval.

Many, if not most, of the people who voted for SMART will be eager to get on board when the trains start rolling this spring. SMART must find ways to keep them aboard. Starting with some free rides could boost SMART’s bottom line in the long run.

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