Commuters find joys, pains of using new SMART rail system

'I am beyond stoked about it,' says Leif Swensen, a Petaluma SMART commuter, echoing what many riders interviewed had to say about the month-old rail system.|

Five days a week, Wally Walston rides his bike less than 2 miles to the Cotati SMART station and rolls his two-wheeler aboard the train for a 32-minute trip to southern Novato.

In the past month Shaun Ralston has cycled to and from SMART stations in Sonoma and Marin counties. He also has combined his train trips with bus and ferry rides and been shuttled by Lyft, a ride-sharing service paid for by his employer, Sutter Health.

And Sharon Bringel last week said she was going to take her first SMART trip to her job in San Rafael. The decision came after watching a northbound train with a coworker on board zip by her car as it sat stuck in afternoon freeway traffic.

“When she passed us, I said, ‘Okay, we need to at least try this,'” said Bringel, who stopped by the Petaluma station on Thursday with her husband Don to purchase a Clipper Card, the payment method accepted by SMART and other regional transit services.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency attracted nearly 53,000 riders in its first three weeks of service, surpassing projections for the period of 46,800 passengers.

The biggest surprise has been the 15,000 weekend patrons, which is more than seven times greater than first anticipated.

Even so, the majority of passengers still ride during the week, and interviews with a half-dozen commuters offered overwhelmingly positive reviews.

“I am beyond stoked about it,” said Leif Swensen, who on Thursday evening rolled his bike down the ramp at the Petaluma station. The “emotional stress of driving in gridlocked traffic was getting to me,” he said of the former commute on Highway 101 to his web designing job in Novato.

After watching the nine-year effort to build a new train system, the public at last is getting some early answers to a key question: How will commuters get to and from the stations?

As expected, many are driving and using the limited number of parking spaces around the stations. But 3,800 trips were made with bicycles brought aboard the trains, enough that system officials acknowledged they may need to make changes to accommodate so many two-wheeling commuters.

As well, the county of Marin last week began providing shuttles to help its workers get from the stations to their work sites. And the city of Santa Rosa next month is expected to start a free shuttle for riders between the Railroad Square station and downtown, including city parking garages. The Santa Rosa shuttle is projected to cost $141,000 for service through next June.

The most interesting development on the trips to and from stations may be the partnerships of businesses and government agencies with ride-sharing companies. Among the arrangements:

Keysight Technologies is offering to pay the cost of Uber trips for employees between SMART stations and the company's Santa Rosa headquarters in Fountaingrove.

Sutter Health will pay for Lyft rides for both workers and patients between the SMART Airport station and the regional hospital campus on Mark West Springs Road.

The Transportation Authority of Marin is offering up to a $5 subsidy with Lyft for any rider needing to get to or from a SMART station in Marin County from Monday to Friday. The subsidy is part of a six-month pilot program.

Ride-sharing collaborations

A handful of major Santa Rosa employees, including Keysight and Sutter, spent more than a year looking at a shared shuttle system to help their workers use SMART. They ultimately decided not to create such a system, but from that effort some employers “pushed through to a more innovative approach” with the ride-sharing companies, said Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador.

Similar fledgling efforts between transit agencies and ride-sharing companies are happening in the western and southern U.S. in an attempt to help riders get to and from rail stations, said Robert Puentes, president/CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, an independent think tank based in Washington, D.C. The new possibilities are causing transit operators to take different approaches to this longstanding problem.

BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, boasts roughly 46,000 parking spaces near its stations. But Puentes suggested that transit systems today are less likely to see parking as the solution.

“The trend is probably the other way,” he said, adding there are “a lot of examples where the parking is going away” in favor of dense housing developments near stations.

In 2008, Sonoma and Marin voters approved the SMART system and agreed to help pay for its operation with a quarter-cent sales tax. Officials forecast the system initially would carry about 3,000 riders each weekday from near Windsor to San Rafael. The eventual plan calls for trains to run from Cloverdale to Larkspur, a system built on reconstructed tracks first used more than a century ago.

Social media still overflows with criticism of the $600 million project, the largest public works venture in the North Bay in decades. Critics complain of high fares, including an adult round trip of $19 between Santa Rosa and San Rafael. They also question the system's value to the public and maintain that SMART will do little to relieve freeway congestion.

But the oft-mentioned worry that the train service would fail to meet its ridership projections has not materialized, at least for now. SMART Board Chairwoman Deb Fudge acknowledged that upon hearing the initial ridership counts at last week's board meeting, “I did have a huge smile on my face because the naysayers were wrong.”

The six commuters interviewed differed in their destinations and their means for getting to and from SMART stations. But they shared a common nemesis: the rush-hour freeway conditions between southern Petaluma and northern Marin County. The word “brutal” was evoked by some to describe the toll of driving day after day through the Novato Narrows and a second morning choke point near the intersection of Highways 37 and 101 in Novato.

“Friday evenings can be horrible,” said Walston, a Rohnert Park resident who works as a sales manager for a high-end color consulting company in Novato. In contrast, now that he's taking SMART, “I'm not late for work.”

‘Less stress, less anxiety'

Matt Nicholson of Rohnert Park said he often gets a jump on the day by checking his email aboard the train and sending text messages as part of his job as a property manager. His morning commute starts with a drive to the Cotati SMART station and ends with a 10-minute walk to his office in San Rafael.

“There's less stress, less anxiety than from the drive,” Nicholson said. “And then I come in kind of fresh in the morning.”

Ralston, a regional manager for Sutter Health, has made enough trips on SMART to be able to compare the various combinations of bus, train and ferry rides between Santa Rosa and San Francisco. On one day he made both his fastest and his longest mass transit trip ever to The City - in both cases using a combination of SMART and Golden Gate buses.

The morning commute took an hour and 40 minutes. The longest trip, 3½ hours, occurred because he missed the 5:29 p.m. train at San Rafael and had to wait 90 minutes to catch the next one.

Ralston also has taken a bicycle aboard the train and used the free Lyft service his employer provides in Santa Rosa. Soon he plans to try the subsidized Lyft program available in Marin County.

In his eyes, SMART is “an enormous asset.”

“At the end of the day,” said Ralston, “it's faster and cheaper than driving.”

Even so, Ralston and other commuters would like to see a few changes. Several said they want more evening northbound trains leaving San Rafael so that riders who miss the 5:29 p.m. train don't need to wait 90 minutes.

Some want the free Wi-Fi service to be more reliable. And they want SMART to adjust to the reality that more people are bringing bicycles on board trains than initially planned. Ralston said he saw a cyclist denied boarding one evening in Petaluma because the conductor concluded there wasn't room for another bike.

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said the rail system's officials “have plans in our back pocket” to address rider concerns, including that the peak times for passengers is coinciding with the time when the most bicycles are brought on board. But he said he wants more time to study whether the initial trends continue.

“I hate to make changes with only three weeks of data,” he said.

The Wi-Fi challenges may be solved by offering customers a premium service paid directly to an internet service provider, he said.

And both Fudge and Mansourian said SMART is seeking more staff to expand its evening service and cut the longest wait times.

“Once we get more of those engineers,” said Fudge, “we can run more trains.”

Worker incentives

About 60 North Bay companies and governments are working with SMART to provide some type of incentives for their workers, Mansourian said.

Among them is the County of Marin, which will provide a $40 monthly subsidy to employees who purchase SMART's unlimited use Eco Pass. When purchased in bulk, the Eco Pass can be cheaper than SMART's unlimited 31-day pass, which costs $200.

The county is acquiring the Eco Pass from SMART for $155 a month and reselling them to county employees for $115 a month, said Angela Nicholson, an assistant county administrator. The subsidized rate reduces the daily cost to $5.75, based on 20 round trips per month.

At the County of Sonoma, officials will consider an employee discount after completing a commute survey in October, said Rebecca Wachsberg, a deputy county administrator. She added that county employees can ride for free on a county bus that operates between a SMART station and the county's administration center.

A survey of nearly 650 SMART riders found that 48 percent were bound for the downtown San Rafael station, followed by 12 percent for the Marin Civic Center, 9 percent for Petaluma and 7 percent for the airport station.

Meanwhile, Petaluma and the Santa Rosa downtown stations each were the starting point for 18 percent of all train trips, followed by the airport station at 16 percent and downtown San Rafael at 12 percent.

While Santa Rosa is a major hub for the new service, the city hasn't seen an increase in motorists buying monthly parking passes for its lots or garages. Indeed, the city still has 40 available spaces under the freeway, about two blocks from the SMART station, said Santa Rosa parking manager Kim Nadeau. Such a space costs $45 a month.

In contrast, a SMART commuter would have to pay at least $62 a month for a space in a city garage and then take the upcoming shuttle or walk at least a half mile to the station.

The parking space under the freeway may sound like the closest choice for many Santa Rosans, but not everyone is sold on the solution.

Carolyn Simons lives in Santa Rosa but drives to the Rohnert Park train station and pays $20 a month to park there.

“I'm nervous about parking in the downtown,” she said. “I feel safe in Rohnert Park.”

Simons takes the train three days a week to San Rafael, and then gets a shuttle or bus to her human relations job at Golden Gate Transit. She said she planned to take the train on a day when she works for the agency's engineering and maintenance department at the Larkspur Ferry terminal. A commuter shuttle operates between the ferry landing and the San Rafael station.

Simons said she has been driving to work for three years, but decided to give SMART a try. “I have just loved it ever since,” she said.

Several commuters acknowledged they had to adjust their lives in order to take the train. But they said the changes were worthwhile, especially when they consider the headaches associated with driving at rush hour.

They said they have shared such conclusions, sometimes with a giggle or a smile, while getting to know fellow train riders.

Nicholson said he and other riders have looked out the train windows at stalled freeway traffic and happily noted, “We're not sitting in that this morning.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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