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SMART launches passenger train service at new $55 million Larkspur station

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A standing-room only SMART train burst into cheers Saturday morning as sunshine reentered the windows as it passed south through a short tunnel and — for the very first time with paying customers — pulled into the brand new station in Larkspur.

“Look how much excitement there is about it,” Susan Whistler, 65, of Forestville said as she exited the holiday-themed Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train after it finished the maiden voyage. “This is pretty exciting. I’ve been waiting for it a long time.”

She wasn’t alone in her delight over the now 45-mile line, from Larkspur to near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport north of Santa Rosa. Advocates of the train and those curious about the North Bay commuter rail line’s new southern terminus, with its connection to the nearby Larkspur Ferry Terminal, filled the seats, aisles and areas near the doors for the journey.

April Nichols, 63, who lives just west of Santa Rosa, parked her car and caught the train from the Santa Rosa north station at Guerneville Road. She and her friend, Anne Sutter, 69, of Sebastopol, scheduled a day trip to San Francisco via the ferry around Larkspur’s opening day.

The two retired kindergarten teachers from the Piner-Olivet Union School District planned to meet at the Cotati stop and enjoy each other’s company for the remainder of the one hour and 19-minute route. Their idea was to take in the experience to weigh the costs of the train and ferry versus driving and parking in the city, and decide how they would make the trek in the future.

“I just use it for pleasure,” Nichols said, noting the occasion, which included Santa Claus handing out plush mini-trains, marked her second time aboard. “But I love it, and I’m so glad that we have it. I might use it a couple times a year, but maybe more now.”

SMART hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Larkspur platform the day before, which included federal, state and transit officials coming together with the public to celebrate completion of the $55.4 million project. The 2.1-mile extension took about 2½ years to design, build and roll out service and may help the agency in its pitch to voters in the two counties for early renewal of its quarter-cent sales tax. The March ballot initiative, recently designated Measure I, aims to help the agency manage rising debts tied to build-out of its initial 43-mile line.

SMART is also hoping the new station, which concludes rail construction on the Marin County side of the system, will provide a bump in ridership and also begin to attract more San Franciscans north to Marin and Sonoma counties. In so doing, it stands to boost passenger counts aboard the ferry to and from Larkspur as well.

“People like trains and they like boats, and to combine the two together will be attractive to a lot of folks,” said Denis Mulligan, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District, which operates the ferry. “You’re not stuck in traffic. So it’s a very reliable way to move around.”

Through a partnership between the two transit agencies planned for January and February to introduce riders to the dual services, transfers between the train and ferry will be free on weekends and holidays. A six-month pilot program that the bridge district is poised to approve next week will also offer a two-for-one option for $12 each direction via the SMART smartphone ticket app when passengers ride the reverse-commute route or during weekday off-peak hours. Together, the two services usually cost $18 for a regular adult ticket with a Clipper Card, which includes a $1.50 transfer discount.

How many more riders could result from the connection or short-term incentives — as well as a new station in downtown Novato that opened Saturday — is unclear. SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said in an interview earlier this month that he could not estimate the potential passenger gains. “We’re getting good vibes,” he said. “We’ll see.”

SMART has carried more than 1.6 million riders over more than two years of service, according to SMART officials. However, the agency continues to refuse requests for passenger records that would contribute to understanding the system’s daily and weekly ridership counts during 27 months of operations.

On Saturday morning aboard the train on her way to meet a friend in San Rafael, Rohnert Park resident Diane Gizzi was clad in a slew of San Francisco Giants gear, including earrings, a necklace pendant and black sweatshirt, each with the team’s logo. She said she rides SMART at least twice a month and is looking forward to the new expanded weekday schedule that will go into effect at the beginning of the new year.

The addition of the Larkspur station provides more opportunity for her to take SMART and then the ferry to Giants games, Gizzi said. The launch of service at the new stop led to the discontinuation of Golden Gate Transit’s shuttle route from the San Rafael Transit Center to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, which Mulligan said saw “modest” use.

But as a senior citizen who uses a cane, Gizzi has concerns for herself and those with disabilities about the half-mile distance from the new train station to the ferry terminal, which takes the average person about 10 minutes to walk at a casual pace along one of two routes. SMART worked to build its new schedule around at least 20-minute headways in almost all cases between ferries and trains.

“To go to a game, I’d walk,” said Gizzi. “But for people with a walker or in wheelchairs, how are they going to do it? It’s a long way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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