SMART to begin train service to new Larkspur and Novato stations in mid-December
SMART plans to launch service to Larkspur, the rail system’s gateway to San Francisco via the nearby ferry, by mid-?December after finishing testing on the extension, helping set the stage for an expanded schedule that agency officials branded “a game changer.”
The 2-mile extension is Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s first completed expansion since it began operating in 2017 on 43 ?miles of existing track from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts. Completion is a watershed moment for the taxpayer-supported transit system voters approved in 2008. Design, construction and planning service took about 2½ years for the $55.4 million project that includes an accompanying bicycle and pedestrian pathway adjacent to the tracks that is expected to be finished by the end of next year.
The timing of the station’s opening next month and expansion of train service the first week of January is not lost on officials with SMART, who again seek voter support in March for renewal of the sales tax that funds the 2-year-old passenger rail system. Without extension of the commuter rail agency’s primary funding source about a decade early, staff has warned of a need to burn through financial reserves or make deep cuts to SMART’s workforce and service over the next three years.
“The real game-changer here is the schedule,” Novato Mayor Eric Lucan, who serves on the SMART board, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s probably one of the biggest things that we’ve been able to announce really since we started service. I think it’s the perfect opportunity to get this in front of as many people as possible.”
The 12-member board on Wednesday backed a plan to introduce the new schedule, which will reduce the number of gaps in service while adding Larkspur and another stop at Novato’s new downtown station, immediately after the holiday season. It will go into effect on Jan. 2.
“There’s a lot of exciting stuff here,” said Windsor Vice Mayor Deb Fudge, one of the SMART board’s longest-serving members. “We’ve got more trains per week. We’ve got the earlier weekend service that we wanted. We’ve got two new stations.”
SMART did not set a definitive date for service to Larkspur, but agency staff is looking at a day in the second or third week of December to host an opening ceremony before starting passenger service the next day. Stops at the new $7 million downtown Novato station are likely to start during the two or three weekends ahead of SMART launching the new schedule, when Novato will be fully integrated with weekday service.
SMART’s new schedule will offer trains every 30 minutes during commute hours, between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. - long a demand of riders, and a commitment made in SMART’s original sales-tax measure proposal. Increased train service was made possible through the rail agency’s purchase of more trains - now totaling nine sets - hiring of additional operations staff and meticulous meshing of multiple regional transit schedules, including local buses, shuttles, the Golden Gate Ferry and even flights in and out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, to coordinate connections, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.
“The current schedule has done pretty well, but we heard from … members of the public that we needed to improve it,” Mansourian told the board Wednesday. “We’re now in a position where, as promised, we can come back and report to you a lot of hard work has taken place. I can’t tell you how difficult it was. We had to figure out how we coordinate our schedule with their schedules.”
Instead of 34 trains per weekday - 17 southbound and 17 northbound trips - the schedule will grow to 38 total trips, or two more each direction, as well as eliminate two 60-minute gaps each weekday morning and two 90-minute down periods each weekday night. The weekend and holiday schedule will maintain 10 daily trips - five each direction - but start at 7:30 a.m. compared to the current 10:13 a.m. first southbound train.
Both the weekday and weekend schedules line up with the ferry schedule, providing at least 20 minutes between connections for passengers to make a half-mile walk between the train and ferry stations. A spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge District, which operates the ferry, described the walk as taking about 10 minutes.
“What a beautiful trip; you’re in San Francisco before 11 a.m.,” said Mansourian. “This is really something we’re very happy and proud of. The times are really good.”
The Larkspur extension was predominately funded through a mix of federal and regional grants, plus nearly $7 million that SMART allocated from its annual sales-tax revenue. The new Novato station - the Marin County city’s third - was paid for by the city, with about $3 million in outside grants.
After separate opening ceremonies for Larkspur and downtown Novato, SMART will shift its attention to campaigning for the sales-tax renewal, in addition to starting construction on its $65 million northern extension to Windsor and designing a second station in Petaluma on the city’s east side, estimated to cost between $8 million and $11 million.
“This period is going to be critical from the point of first impressions,” SMART Board Chairman Gary Phillips, who is mayor of San Rafael, said of the changes. “It sounds like we’re in exactly the right place. I’m anxious to see it, and anxious to see the results of those significant time gaps being closed.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler