SMART eyes closing 90-minute Marin-Sonoma service gaps with revised schedule, extension to Larkspur

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Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is planning to close several extended gaps in daily rail service with a new schedule that will increase the frequency of departures, debuting the revised routes in December with the planned opening of its new Larkspur station.

The addition of four new rail cars will allow SMART to increase the number of trains on its tracks and attempt to address complaints about long waits for service during key weekday commuter hours.

“To me, closing the gaps is significant, and the sooner the better. I think it’s common sense,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who serves as chairman of SMART’s board of directors. “Once you have the schedule, then you have to be able to perform. We want to make darn sure that there are not any hiccups along the way.”

SMART currently runs 17 southbound trains and 17 northbound trains on weekdays, with the first train departing at 4:19 a.m. from the station north of Santa Rosa near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and the last arriving at 9:42 p.m.

There are three 90-minute gaps between departing trains. The first, on southbound trains leaving the airport station between 8:19 a.m. and 9:49 a.m., is immediately followed by a 3-hour gap, with the next southbound departure at 12:49 p.m.

The gaps are partly due to the design of SMART, which operates four trains on a single-track system. For example, the first train to reach its terminus each day must then wait for the other three to arrive and exit in reverse order before it may head back out the other direction. As a result, two more 90-minute gaps are built into the current schedule south, between 12:49 p.m. and 2:19 p.m., as well as 3:49 and 5:19 p.m.

From San Rafael heading north, the first 90-minute gap hits between 9:59 a.m. and 11:29 a.m., with the 3-hour wait between 11:29 a.m. and 2:29 p.m. The other two 90-minute gaps north toward Sonoma County run between 2:29 p.m. and 3:59 p.m., and 5:29 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. — the latter of which is a peak period for rush-hour commuters getting off work.

“I’ve gotten caught up in that one myself,” said Jake Mackenzie, a longtime Rohnert Park councilman who for 15 years previously served on the SMART board. “At that time, not enough rolling stock was the answer that we were given. We weren’t particularly pleased, because everybody would ideally have a half-hour headway all the time.”

Two-way train service every half hour was pledged as part of Measure Q, the 2008 sales tax measure that voters in Sonoma and Marin counties passed with 70% support to fund SMART. Now, as the rail agency considers asking residents to renew the quarter-cent tax in March almost a decade early, rail officials think improving service through more frequent trains could increase ridership and help win votes.

“This is the time to do it. We need to get it done,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year SMART board member. “It’s been frustrating that we haven’t fixed it yet. The general manager has promised soon now that we have some other trains. And the more we can make this transit line convenient, I think the more people we can attract.”

Schedule changes, however, are complicated by the need to coordinate departure and arrival times with five other regional transit agencies — including Santa Rosa CityBus, Sonoma County Transit and Golden Gate Transit — to ensure riders can transfer smoothly between systems.

SMART intends to implement the new schedule in December, when it is scheduled to begin service to its new station in Larkspur, allowing riders to connect to ferries serving San Francisco.

“It’s a very, very complicated process,” Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART, told the 12-member board last week. “But this is what we do to make sure that you don’t arrive when the last train just left or vice-versa. With us going to Larkspur, not only do we have to make sure that as many trips as possible work in the San Rafael Transit Center, but now we also have to see if we’re meeting the ferry’s arrival and departure. So we’re working on that.”

SMART has presented a draft schedule to each of the other transit agencies for feedback. The proposed times are not available to the public and still require test runs to ensure consistent arrivals, according to a SMART spokesman. Once minor tweaks are made and the schedule is agreed upon, it will be brought back to the SMART board in October or November for potential adoption, Mansourian said.

A date for the start of service to Larkspur, as well as the new station in downtown Novato, is also not yet available. Construction is “basically complete,” and SMART is optimistic it will extend service by the end of the year, said chief engineer Bill Gamlen.

But before that can happen, SMART must run trains on the new track and test the 2-mile extension’s railroad crossing warning equipment, which the Federal Railroad Administration requires include the sounding of the train’s horn. SMART has opted to do the testing overnight so it does not interrupt existing passenger service, and last week’s initial early- morning noise drew the ire of several nearby San Rafael residents. Additional testing is scheduled for this weekend between 9:30 p.m. and 8 a.m., as well as in future weeks.

“The first testing was Friday night into early Saturday morning, and it kind of hit the fan as a result,” said Phillips. “So I met with some folks wanting to yell at somebody. What are you going to do?

“It’s pretty brutal,” he added of the overnight blaring of the train horn. “The next testing phase, one of the beefs is it’s on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so that’ll be the next round. I’m going away to Tahoe.”

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

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