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When Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit starts operating, commuters could be able to board trains every half-hour and catch connecting public or private shuttles at stations within minutes of arrival, the head of the transportation agency said at a business conference in San Rafael on March 25.

Work on stations is expected to wrap in the next threee months, and testing of operations will be ongoing through fall. Part of that testing includes draft schedules between stops along the 43-mile initial service length from the downtown San Rafael transit center to a station at the SMART operations center near Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport north of Santa Rosa, said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART (sonomamarintrain.org), to about 170 attending the Business Journal’s Impact Marin conference at Embassy Suites San Rafael.

As he made a pitch to business leaders at the conference, Mansourian contrasted long, variable commute times on Highway 101 with proposed schedules that are about half as long and designed to meet timetables on rails free of other traffic.

“Highway 101 is simply unpredictable,” Mansourian said. “So we need something that is predictable.”

One major employer with locations near the San Rafael Civic Center station surveyed its workers about commuting and found that the three top SMART stations they would likely use are Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, central Petaluma and San Marin in north Novato, Mansourian said. SMART’s proposed schedule could turn a 90-minute commute on Highway 101 from Railroad Square to the Civic Center to 49 minutes; 40–75 minutes from Petaluma, to 25 minutes; and 45 minutes from San Marin, to 14 minutes.

The San Marin–Civic Center commute time savings drew an audible gasp from conference-goers.

The draft schedule being tested for how realistic they are for operating speeds and terrain along the way. The proposal is for 30 trips a day north and south, with trains leaving every 30 minutes during commute times. After two years of talks with local and regional transit agencies serving communities along the line, the SMART commuting proposition is being crafted to offer quick connecting buses or shuttles at stations.

Being considered for the southbound commute are nine departures from the airport 4:49–8:15 a.m., one or two midday trains and five 3:49–7:45 p.m. SMART and Sonoma County Transit have talked about express buses from Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Windsor to the airport station. Those cities have depots that have been finished for several years, but service to them has been postponed for lack of funding.

There are also discussions about bus loops through business areas to transfer riders between stations and company premises. And SMART is negotiating with private transportation companies about offering employers shuttles between stations and their front doors. Proposed shuttle rates at this point range from $80–$125 an hour, with possibilities for branding shuttles with a company logo, Mansourian said.

A goal is to have bus or shuttle options to pick up commuters within four or five minutes of a train’s arrival at a station, he said.

Northbound routes being studied would leave San Rafael starting at 6:29 a.m., have a few during midday then run 4:20–7:24 p.m. SMART is working with Golden Gate Transit on express buses to connect the San Rafael transit station and the Larkspur ferry terminal until the line is extended there two years from now.

The Civic Center-area employer’s survey garnered 922 responses. Ninety percent of those chiming in said they drive alone, and 60 percent said they’d likely ride SMART. Of the interested riders, 90 percent said they want to ride five days a week, 80 percent would use morning and evening trains, 69 percent want an employer commuting program and 62 percent want to use the Clipper electronic fare card on SMART.

SMART recently signed on to accept the Clipper system, used by many North Bay and Bay Area transit agencies.

While SMART has a draft schedule it is testing, there is no publicly available list of fares, Mansourian said. Fares on SMART would be zone-based, which means farther trips would cost more, and the agency board’s direction is to make fares “equitable and affordable.”

The SMART board at its April 6 meeting is set to consider a city of Novato proposal for adding a downtown station to the planned ones at each end of the city. Serving a downtown station as well as San Marin wouldn’t be feasible on the same run, so there could be an accommodation of alternating stops at each, if the city opts for a third depot, Mansourian told a conference-goer who asked about it.

SMART is also considering whether the trains or depot platforms can be rented when not in service for special events such as wedding or parties, Mansourian said.

The transit agency continues to await permits to move forward with construction on a bike path along the line, he said, when asked about progress on that. Originally estimating it would take one year, SMART has been seeking these permits for going on three years, he said.