Crowds gathered this morning at Railroad Square near downtown Santa Rosa for the official opening of the first passenger rail service in the North Bay since 1958.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system cars will begin rolling at about 1 p.m. following speeches by state and local officials. The event kicked off at 9:30 a.m.

The debut of the initial 43-mile line between Santa Rosa and San Rafael has been nearly 15 years in the making. The Legislature created SMART in 2002 and Marin and Sonoma county voters in 2008 approved a quarter-cent sales tax to subsidize the rail service. SMART began restoring the moth-balled Northwestern Pacific rail line in 2012.

The $600 million transit system will operate 14 trains carrying a projected 3,000 people on weekdays.

All rides Friday will be free, and fares will be half price through Labor Day on Sept. 4.

An extended 70-mile route from Cloverdale to Larkspur is dependent on additional funding from state and regional sources.

The transit agency led by general manager Farhad Mansourian has a $30 million budget and 180 employees.

“They said we are the little engine that could,” Mansourian told the crowd in his address. “No. We are the little engine that did!”

The start of service, originally set for 2014, was delayed by a severe recession that curtailed tax revenue and several other setbacks, including repair of the agency’s new fleet of engines due to a faulty crankshaft design.