SMART train and Sonoma employers look for partnership possibilities
With the pending arrival of the SMART regional rail system, some of the North Bay's largest employers are struggling to master a key transit concept: “first mile/last mile,” or how to get workers to and from the train station.
The employers, including Keysight Technologies, Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente and the counties of Sonoma and Marin, are examining whether they can operate shuttles to help their workers get to their jobs.
Employers also are considering other new benefits: Employee pre-tax transit spending accounts, rail fare subsidies and bulk purchases of the Sonoma-Marin Area Regional Transit's sole commuter discount, an annual pass.
More details still need to be worked out before employers are ready to reveal exactly what benefits they will offer. But many business leaders maintain they are striving to help SMART and make it easier for workers to take advantage of a new system that will, at first, operate trains from San Rafael to the south edge of Windsor.
“We're going to try to help them make a good first impression,” said Jonathan Coe, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber is thinking of operating a shuttle service for five of the county's largest employers: Keysight, Medtronic, Sutter, Kaiser and the county of Sonoma.
The business group also may become a bulk buyer of the SMART annual Eco-Pass, Coe said. Doing so could help members obtain the passes at a greater price discount than if bought by individual businesses.
In 2008, Sonoma and Marin voters approved the SMART system and agreed to help pay for its operation with a quarter-cent sales tax. Service is slated to begin in December, with the trains forecast to initially carry about 3,000 riders each weekday. The plan ultimately calls for trains to run from Cloverdale to Larkspur.
Shuttles are considered key in helping many potential SMART commuters complete the “last mile” of their journey to work. The first mile would be from home to the station.
“This has to be a system whereby employees can go from the station to the workplace in a reasonable period of time,” said Jeff Weber, a representative for Keysight, taking part in the shuttle talks. About 200 Keysight workers have expressed interest in possibly riding the train.
What remains unknown, Weber and others said, is whether the local employers can afford to run such shuttles.
It isn't just businesses looking at providing possible transit benefits. The county of Marin is making plans to operate its own SMART shuttles for county employees.
Marin also may offer transit subsidies to county workers who take SMART or area bus or ferry systems. To do that, the county plans to conduct negotiations with its labor force before the trains start running.
“I think this is a really good opportunity for the county to make progress in getting people out of their vehicles,” said Angela Nicholson, a Marin County assistant county administrator.
The business leaders say SMART matters not only for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gases but also because it could improve the quality of life for their employees. That especially relates to those making the arduous commute by freeway between the two counties.
As such, supporting the train could make it easier for participating companies to attract and retain good workers.
For their part, SMART officials acknowledged the train system needs the involvement of the business community.
“This is a commuter rail service,” said Jake Mackenzie, a SMART director and the vice chairman of the Rohnert Park City Council. “It's of the greatest importance.”
Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager, called it “crucial to have a very strong business base where their employees would be riding SMART.”
The business effort follows the setting of fares last month by the SMART board of directors. The decision has generated considerable public criticism from those who say the regular fares are too high.
A one-way fare from Santa Rosa to San Rafael is set at $9.50 one way, or $19 round-trip.
At the same meeting, the board approved the annual Eco-Pass as the sole discount option for the average commuter.
SMART officials are hoping that companies, chambers and other institutions will buy them for workers or members.
The unlimited-ride pass gives the biggest discounts off full fare to commuters who ride the greatest distances among SMART's five fare zones and who obtain passes from the largest bulk buyers. The more passes a company or group buys, the lower the price for each one.
For example, a rider from Santa Rosa to San Rafael who gets the annual pass from a buyer of 500-plus passes would pay $1,856 a year. That amounts to a savings of 62 percent off the regular fare total of $4,845, using SMART's assumption of 255 work-day round trips.