Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit's ‘last-mile' commute challenge

After many delays, the Sonoma–Marin Area Rail Transit train may start service this summer, and businesses have been looking at ways to help their workers get out of their cars and onto the train for their daily commute.

While some employers have found solutions, others are still scratching their heads.

The SMART train's initial route will be 43 miles from the transit station in downtown San Rafael to the industrial parks near Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport.

Earlier this year, the county of Marin became the first employer to provide “last-mile” access between the train in San Rafael and four county offices.

The county approved $200,000 from the general fund to provide no-cost shuttle service for one year, according to Craig Tackabery, chief assistant director, Public Works.

The shuttle will operate in a loop serving eight morning and eight evening trains, and will have a capacity for 30 sitting and 10 standing passengers.

Meanwhile, the city of Santa Rosa has stepped in and revamped its CityBus schedule, so a bus will run every 15 minutes from SMART's Railroad Square station to Third Street downtown by Courtyard Square.

The city has also sent out a request for proposals for shuttle service from all major parking structures to Railroad Square to run every 15 minutes during peak travel hours. The shuttle would be able to carry 10–15 passengers per trip, according to Beth Kranda, CityBus deputy director.

Sonoma County Transit is also re-routing a bus that currently runs in the airport area to stop at the train station.

Cost to ride the train starts at $3.50 plus $2 for every zone crossed, or $200 for a monthly pass. The SMART EcoPass program allows employees to receive discounts at a rate tied to the number of annual passes purchased by their company in advance. Rates start at $213 per month for employers with up to 50 workers.

The federal Tax Code also allows employees to use up to $255 per month of pretax dollars to pay for transit costs through employer-sponsored programs.

In June 2016, when the train was scheduled to begin service at the end of that year, the Journal reported that SMART was working directly with various companies to help coordinate shuttle service for their employees to and from the train.

A year later, SMART told the Journal that it is not working with companies, and most of the employee shuttles would be organized by the companies themselves.

The chambers of commerce in Santa Rosa and Novato were also working with local employers last year, acting as a bridge between businesses and SMART with regard to last-mile service.

In Marin, those businesses included Buck Institute for Research on Aging, BioMarin, Sutter Health, Birkenstock, TravelSmith and Novato Unified School District.

In Santa Rosa, the chamber was working with companies that included Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente, Keysight Technologies, Medtronic, Sonoma State University, Santa Rosa Junior College, and administration at Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.

But as the process evolved, “it didn't make sense” for the chamber to be involved, as businesses proceeded to work individually or in small groups, said Jonathan Coe, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber CEO.

On its own, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, with more than 900 employees, is now working with Sonoma County Transit to slightly modify Route 62, which already stops at the hospital, to accommodate train arrival and departure times. This new route will begin in July.

Because the hospital operates 24 hours a day and employee shifts begin at various hours, scheduling is a challenge. The hospital will be tracking interest for on-demand service, said Lisa Amador, company spokesperson.

While working with the chamber, Sutter had been in discussion about possibly coordinating service with Keysight Technologies and Medtronic. Those two companies are eying working together to bring workers to and from SMART's Coddingtown station. However, Sutter is closer to the train station near the airport, and distance was a factor in getting employees to the hospital from Coddingtown in a timely manner.

Santa Rosa's Keysight Technologies, with about 1,300 employees, and Medtronic, with more than 800, are considering the possibility of working together on a last-mile solution for employees who choose to use SMART as a commute alternative. However, they have not yet determined if such a partnership is feasible.

“We hope to gather additional information this month and reach a conclusion,” said Jeff Weber, Keysight spokesperson.

Medtronic is “evaluating options to see if there is a cost-effective model that might be viable as an employee shuttle from the Coddingtown station to our respective Fountaingrove facilities,” said Fernando Vivanco, speaking for Medtronic. “We have also surveyed employees who live along the (Highway) 101 corridor to estimate potential ridership. But as of now, no decisions have been made.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.

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