SMART delays start of service as rail manager says ‘bet on this summer’
The launch date of the North Bay’s passenger rail service is in doubt again after officials with the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority on Wednesday acknowledged they will not meet their latest target of late spring for welcoming riders on-board.
Anticipation had been building for SMART to announce a launch date after the rail agency convened a special meeting of its board of directors at the rail operations center on Airport Boulevard.
The meeting, held Wednesday, drew more than 100 SMART employees, along with Bay Area media outlets, to a large hangar where a SMART train was positioned in the background, its destination sign illuminated for “San Rafael.”
For now, that train remains off-limits to the public who paid for it through a sales tax measure voters approved nearly a decade ago.
Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, touted progress of the rail project to date, saying construction work on the initial 43-mile rail line from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael is complete.
The work included 24 bridges, 63 at-grade crossings, 7 miles of a bicycle and pedestrian path and environmental offsets that protected a 60-acre nature preserve, Mansourian said.
“It is my pleasure to announce to you that we have done our part. We now need to wait and get final permission to open our doors,” Mansourian told the board.
Mansourian described what he called a “soft-opening” for SMART in the meantime to allow the public to ride a single train on a limited basis. Several members of the SMART board took turns lauding that as a significant milestone for the rail agency.
“This is quite an incredible day,” Novato City Councilman Eric Lucan, a SMART director, said.
“I’m continuously amazed at all the work that’s taken place over the many, many years to get us to this point, and I’m really excited to be able to open the doors and officially open the train to the public.”
But Mansourian’s announcement clearly was not the news some were expecting. The general manager had been saying for weeks that “late spring” would be when passenger service would start and that Wednesday’s meeting would be one people would not want to miss.
“A great number of people were expecting us to report back to them as to when service will begin, and I’m not absolutely clear on that, other than what sounds like approval from the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration). I’m not sure that’s necessarily the message we want to bring,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who serves on SMART’s board.
Mansourian said federal regulators are scheduled to begin an audit of SMART’s operations on Monday. Once that review is completed - currently timed to June 15 - Mansourian said SMART could begin offering “preview runs” for the media and members of the public.
“We view that as a ramp-up. We start and every day, every week, maybe we add more and more trips as FRA feels more comfortable with us,” Mansourian said.
SMART has projected upwards of 3,000 people will ride the green-and-gray trains weekdays, with an additional 400 projected for weekends.
After the board meeting, Mansourian clarified that the preview runs are more like excursion trips to get people familiar with the trains and to offer feedback on the experience. SMART offered similar rides last fall before federal regulators stepped in and instructed the agency to discontinue the practice.
Pressed on a revised date for full passenger service to start, Mansourian did not offer any specifics, other than to say he expects it to begin sometime this summer.
“If I were a betting man, I would definitely bet on this summer. That’s where I’m putting my money on,” Mansourian said.
SMART delayed passenger service late last year to overcome testing challenges and engine problems on the trains.
“I understand that the public is disappointed that we don’t have a hard and fast date (for starting service),” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a SMART director. “I get that. There’s been a lot of excitement and anticipation, but what we can say with security is that it’s literally days away.”
SMART officials also stressed the myriad challenges of getting a brand-new passenger rail service up and running, one that will be equipped with safety systems designed to prevent derailments.
“To have a train like this start from scratch in the Bay Area with all of the rules and regulations we have, with all of the setbacks we’ve had with money, with the recession, this is a red-letter day, and I’m going to focus on the excitement we have,” said Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge, chairwoman of SMART’s board.
“I can’t wait to see people’s faces when they get on the train for the first time,” she added.
Following a photo-op with SMART employees, directors boarded a train outside the operations center and set off down the line for what their agenda stated was a closed-door meeting on security measures.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.