SANTA ROSA -- A real-time bus arrival notification system is among a number of upgrades expected to be implemented for Sonoma County Transit this year, according to the agency's short-range transit plan approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Planned for completion this spring, the system will allow real-time arrival information through special kiosks, computers, mobile devices or landline phones. The system will utilize global positioning systems that come standard on the county's newest 30- and 40-foot buses, already used to automatically announce location for riders, according to the report prepared for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and approved by the board in February. The technology will become standard for all vehicles over time.

Currently, riders of Sonoma County Transit are asked to plan their travels around schedules posted at many transit stops and online. Those schedules omit the unpredictable realities of day-to-day road conditions, something that could be accounted for in a real-time system. Other real-time systems in the Bay Area also make that information available to online mapping programs, making it easier for riders to use a service like Google Maps to coordinate transfers between multiple transit routes or agencies on their mobile devices.

The system will also allow planners to accurately monitor data on route efficiency and locate vehicles in emergencies. It is expected to cost a total of $353,000 to implement in the county's 2013 fiscal year, including regional air district funding and local funds allocated from the Transit Development Act.

Further details about the system will be available as the effort gets under way later this year, said Bryan Albee, manager of the transit division for the county's Department of Transportation and Public Works.

The transit agency is also planning to activate a new fueling system for its fleet of natural gas-powered buses this spring. Built at a budgeted cost of $1.77 million and primarily through federal funding, the system will be able to supply the compressed gas simultaneously to 50 vehicles and be faster and more efficient that the 20-vehicle system currently used to fuel buses for Sonoma County Transit.

The usage of compressed natural gas saves the agency $1.2 million annually versus the cost of diesel, according to the report. An early adopter of the technology in the Bay Area, the transit agency began with 15 natural gas buses in 1996 and now operates its entire bus fleet on natural gas. Outside of those 30-and 40-foot buses, smaller vehicles are gasoline-powered. 

The agency is also coordinating the construction of two new "park and ride" transit facilities in Healdsburg and Cotati this year, which will join 13 other similar facilities current operating in Sonoma County. Built at a combined cost of $5.2 million and constructed with a mix of federal, state and local funding, the facilities will facilitate connections between drivers and transit systems that will ultimately include the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit passenger rail system.

The transit system, which counted 1.37 million passenger trips in fiscal year 2012, serves most of unincorporated Sonoma County and all of its incorporated municipalities.  Other transit agencies operating in the county include Santa Rosa CityBus, Petaluma Transit and Golden Gate Transit.

Passenger volume has been on the upswing for Sonoma County Transit, rising more than 8 percent over the past two fiscal years after dropping 9.8 percent between fiscal years 2009 and 2010, according to the report. While 2 percent of the county's working population currently uses public transit to commute to work, planners expect those numbers to climb amid transit-oriented development initiatives and the demand for feeder services to and from SMART.