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SMART announces start date for train service to Larkspur, downtown Novato

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SMART will launch passenger service to Larkspur — its portal to San Francisco — as well as limited weekend stops at its other new station in downtown Novato on Dec. 14, the North Bay commuter rail agency announced Wednesday.

The opening date for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s long-planned southern terminus will follow a kickoff party at the Larkspur station the day before to celebrate completion of the $55.4 million project — the first new track added to its 43-mile route since service started in August 2017.

The 1 p.m. ceremony Dec. 13 is set to include key political figures from the region who helped the Larkspur station come to fruition. A group of so far unnamed government officials from Washington, D.C., are also expected to be in attendance — a nod to the $35 million received in federal grant funding to build the 2-mile extension.

“Friday, the 13th, at 1300 hours,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told his board Wednesday, cracking a joke about Murphy’s law. “So, Mr. Murphy, bring it on and we’re hitting you head-on. There is nothing that can stop us. It should be a great weekend.”

To introduce riders to the new connection to nearby ferry service from Larkspur to San Francisco, and vice versa, the SMART board on Wednesday approved new pass options through a partnership with the Golden Gate Bridge District, which operates the ferry.

Starting in January, when SMART will begin running its new expanded train schedule, and lasting through February, transfers to and from the ferry will be free on weekends and holidays. Through a six-month pilot program that the two transit agencies are calling the “Sail and Rail” pass, passengers can also take advantage of a two-for-one option via the SMART smartphone ticket application only when they ride on weekdays during off-peak or reverse commute hours for a flat rate of $12 each direction.

The price for a standard adult ticket to ride SMART end-to-end along the expanded 45-mile line will be $11.50, and a one-way ticket aboard the Larkspur ferry is $12.50, or $8 with a Clipper Card. A $1.50 discount is applied when passengers transfer between the two transit services with the Clipper Card, providing combined service for $18 each direction.

“One of the main goals of your board is, how do we increase the transit ridership — how do we create a dependable and affordable transit system through both counties?” Mansourian said Wednesday. “We’re very, very proud of this. That $12 will get you from anywhere in Sonoma County to San Francisco.”

The new pass programs still require approval from the bridge district’s board but are expected to receive endorsement at its Dec. 20 meeting.

“We at Golden Gate Ferry have been looking for ways to get folks to the ferry without driving a personal vehicle, because, as people who use their vehicle know, parking at the Larkspur Terminal fills up quickly,” said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, a spokesman for the bridge district. “We’re hopeful this creates a vital transit connection for people traveling from the North Bay to San Francisco and back, and really makes an important link that will help folks access jobs and recreation and their homes by rail and ferry.”

Under SMART’s new weekday schedule, which takes effect Jan. 2 and eliminates several gaps during morning and evening commute hours, southbound trains are designed to offer at least 20 minutes between connections to the ferry. With one exception each morning, the same is true of transfers from the ferry to the northbound train, with SMART and the bridge district estimating the half-mile walk on average takes about 7 to 10 minutes.

Sheila Baker, 69, of Petaluma asked SMART to consider adding a shuttle or other vehicle service so seniors and those with disabilities who are trying to make the connection can ensure they have the time necessary to do so.

“This is amazing, Larkspur. We’ve been waiting so long for it,” said Baker. “But I keep thinking about one of my neighbors that would be using a walker, and it’s going to be a little bit difficult. I guess the question is, are you prepared or understanding?”

Mansourian responded that SMART unfortunately does not provide door-to-door service, in Larkspur or anywhere else across the system, and would need to rely on other local transit agencies to consider such a service if the train-to-ferry passenger mix eventually calls for it.

San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who serves as chairman of the SMART board, said Federal Railroad Administration safety officials visited the five road-level crossings between San Rafael and Larkspur on Wednesday morning to certify so-called “quiet zones,” which will remove blaring of the train’s horn as it passes through the intersections. That approval is expected in time for service on Dec. 14, which would appease frustrated Marin County residents who live nearby and have been forced to listen to months of testing ahead of the train’s Larkspur debut.

“It’s going to be tremendously positive, because the opportunity is going to present itself so quickly that you can live and work in San Francisco or Santa Rosa or anywhere along the line,” said longtime Larkspur Councilman Dan Hillmer, who is a member of the SMART board. “That’s a game-changing realization for the region. I think Marin and Sonoma are going to be more closely tied than ever now and moving forward.”

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