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Sonoma County looks to expand rural bus service

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday are set to authorize a $2.2 million expansion of county bus service along existing routes serving Healdsburg, Sonoma Valley and communities along the lower Russian River.

The move is expected to boost access to transportation for low-income people, seniors and those with disabilities who struggle to secure transportation to essential services such as doctor visits, as well as day-to-day access to food outlets and reliable travel to work.

Upon approval, the funding would decrease wait times for riders during busy morning and evening commute hours, officials said, as well as help the county purchase two new energy-efficient buses.

County supervisors hailed the expansion as a much-needed link between rural communities and the North Bay’s planned passenger rail line, set to begin service by the end of next year.

“It’s been a challenge to figure out how we link SMART service to people in Sonoma Valley, along the river and in Healdsburg who may be far removed from the spine of Sonoma County,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin. “This is very critical - I hear from many constituents about how difficult it is to reach services, whether it’s health care, food or education.”

Bryan Albee, a manager with Sonoma County Transit, said the county likely will roll out the bus system expansion by the end of 2016, coinciding with the current timeline for the start of service on the 43-mile SMART line.

“We’re expecting great demand for the new rail service and increased ridership on all of our bus routes,” Albee said. “So as we get closer, we’re looking for ways to fund expanded services and additional buses.”

Riders can expect to see the two new buses along routes serving Healdsburg, Sonoma Valley and the lower Russian River from 6:30 to 9 a.m., and from 4 to 7 p.m., Albee said. The new vehicles are replacing two outdated buses and are expected to bolster passenger trips along the eight bus lines serving those three communities.

Funding for program expansion is tied to transportation-related projects serving low-income communities in the Bay Area. In addition to adding bus service in outlying areas, the program would bolster bus connections between low-income neighborhoods and employment centers in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, transportation officials said.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes communities along the lower Russian River such as Forestville, Guerneville and Rio Nido, said the area is primed to benefit from increased transit service.

Carrillo highlighted findings in a county report released last year that found low-income people are disproportionately affected by the rising cost of living in Sonoma County. He said increased transit service can help address some disparities.

“Mobility is essential for people to get their basic needs met, whether it’s medical appointments, employment or something as simple as grocery shopping,” Carrillo said.

Tuesday’s action is part of a broader initiative to improve the county’s public transportation network. Expanded bus service was called for five years ago, when the Sonoma County Transportation Authority released a set of recommendations to increase transit ridership and offer alternatives to driving.

The $2.2 million for bus service expansion, over three years, is drawn from state and federal sources and includes a $446,000 county match from local transportation funds.

In a separate item, supervisors on Tuesday are also expected to approve an additional $1.8 million for the purchase of three new buses, upgraded with Internet access and reading lamps, for a total of 49 buses in Sonoma County Transit’s fleet.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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