North Bay employers offer SMART train incentives to ease commutes

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Company cars available to zip home mid-workday to deal with an emergency, free Uber rides and subsidized monthly passes are some of the ways employers in Sonoma and Marin counties are encouraging workers to abandon their cars and take the SMART train.

Getting cars off the congested Highway 101 route during the morning and afternoon commutes was a major pitch to convince voters in 2008 to agree to a quarter cent increase in sales tax to fund the 43-mile Santa Rosa-to-San Rafael rail line.

Opened in August, 2017, that Marin-to-Sonoma line recorded its millionth passenger in January. (It’s planning to open an extension to Larkspur in later this year.) How many of those riders are employees lured their by incentives isn’t clear, but some employers say they continue to back the idea of pulling cars off the roads.

“As a health organization focused on reducing carbon emissions, we encourage and incentivize staff to seek green commute alternatives such as the SMART train, local bus services, carpools and cycling to work,” said Shaun Ralston, Sutter Health regional manager. “In the North Bay, two of our largest facilities are located approximately close to SMART train stations, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Novato Community Hospital. In Sonoma County, we partnered with Lyft to provide free ride (codes) for staff traveling to/from the SMART Airport Station. In Marin County, the local transit authority, Transportation Authority of Marin, provides a $5 off discounted Lyft ride (codes) for staff traveling to (and) from the SMART Novato-San Marin Station.”

Lyft uses a technology called geofencing to ensure that free or reduced-fare ride codes are used only between SMART stations and Sutter Health facilities. Geofencing requires the installation of virtual geographic boundaries around the two aforementioned train stations and their care centers. Software triggers a response when an individual travels from the train station to the hospital, entering the code that Sutter or TAM uses to pay for the car trip.

Sutter also pays for free Sonoma County Transit passes for employees. One of these passes is for Route 62, which travels from the Sonoma County Airport SMART station to the Santa Rosa hospital.

Ralston said that Sutter staff have the option of using WageWorks Commuter Benefits, a program that permits employees to use tax-free funds to pay public transportation cost, including SMART train monthly passes. Sutter’s North Bay employees are also offered additional incentives for choosing to commute by SMART train, bus service and carpools. In addition, Sutter uses staff bulletins and internal websites to promote the benefits of SMART train use.

“We hear that employees who use SMART prefer (it because) it helps avoid the stress and delay resulting from bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 101, particularly during rush hour,” said Ralston.

Keeping track of numbers

Some employers, like the Marin County Office of Education, do not do a monthly count of how many employees use the train. Other employers regularly estimate the number by conducting surveys about how many employees use the train, monitoring pre-tax payroll deductions for monthly SMART train passes, counting dollars spent on employer matches for the cost of SMART train passes, and counting requests for “last-leg-of-the-journey” trips.

Sutter Health is currently doing a study to determine how many staff members use alternative transit methods, including the SMART train.

Sabrina Sihakom, planner for the Community Development Agency of Marin, takes the train every weekday. She pays for a monthly pass for the train with pre-tax dollars taken out of her paycheck. “My employer also matches my cost by $40,” said Sihakom.

Russ Colombo, president and CEO of Bank of Marin, said every week, 15 to 20 employees take the train to the bank’s headquarters near the Novato-Hamilton station.

Bank of Marin takes a pre-tax deduction from the employee’s paycheck and matches the employee’s $150 expenditure with a monthly employer match of $50. The number of employees using the train fluctuates.

“We have over 60 employees in Sonoma County. We’re trying to encourage more people to use the train to commute,” said Colombo.

Ken MacNab, community development director for the Town of Windsor, did not have information on the current number of Town employees who ride the SMART train. MacNab said Windsor offers incentives to its employees to ride the SMART train and other transit services, but the number of employees who take advantage of this program has historically been very low.

Windsor offers a free shuttle that runs between the Sonoma County Airport SMART station and downtown Windsor, a primarily non-commute hours service mostly oriented to connecting residents and visitors to destinations in Windsor, said MacNab.

He said the Airport SMART station is one of the busier “Windsor Hopper” stops. People appear willing to use the service.

“There has been interest in expanding the Windsor Hopper to run during morning commute hours. If the service is expanded, it would be easier for (people who work in downtown Windsor) to get off the Hopper stop in downtown Windsor and walk to work,” said MacNab.

Robert Betts, director of operations and planning for Marin County Transit, said the transportation agency has been able to estimate Kaiser Permanente and County of Marin employee ridership of the SMART train through agreements with these companies. The transportation agency offers a program called Connect.

“Marin Transit Connect is an on-demand, shared-ride, accessible general public transit service. (Riders request a trip) through an app or by calling (the) scheduling line. Connect (provides) curb-to-curb service within the service area, northern San Rafael … during the weekdays, (from) 6:20 a.m. to 7 p.m.,” said Betts.

Betts said Marin Transit signed agreements with Kaiser Permanente and the County of Marin in September 2018. The agreements allow Kaiser and County of Marin employees rides to be charged directly to the employers.

“A total of 1,504 rides have been taken using a Marin County or Kaiser employer account. (This represents) 49 percent of (Connect) trips (from) September through November 2018,” said Betts. Dan Virkstis, public affairs program manager for Sonoma County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works, added that Sonoma County cities offer several ways for North Bay employees to get to and from SMART train stations.

The new zero-emission all-electric Sebastopol Shuttle is one of five routes subsidized by the County and local cities that enables all passengers to ride free of charge. Other “fare-free” routes include Route 28, the River Shuttle (Guerneville & Monte Rio); Route 32, the Sonoma Shuttle (Sonoma & Sonoma Valley); Route 66, the Windsor Shuttle and Route 67, the Healdsburg Shuttle.

Over the next three years, Sonoma County Transit will introduce electric buses on local routes in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sonoma.

Company incentives

Employees with family obligations may drive to work because they anticipate having to leave suddenly for an emergency.

To answer concerns of having to leave work midday to answer an emergency, Sutter Health meets the need by providing employees who use alternative transportation with a free Lyft or taxi cab ride home.

Marin County Office of Education, which is located near the Marin Civic Center station, has said that department's employees utilize the emergency ride program as well.

This program, sponsored by the Transportation Authority of Marin, is open to all employees in Marin County who use a mode of transportation other than driving alone to work. Individuals who face an unexpected situation such as a sick child can take public transit home and send a reimbursement request to the Transportation Authority. Employers do not pay for the trip.

Bank of Marin meets less urgent employee needs by having a fleet of Toyota Prius hybrid cars at its headquarters available for mid-day use.

“We usually use them for valet service to our customers. In the middle of the day, they often sit in the lot. We hear that people don’t use the train because they need their car. The Priuses are available to them during the day if needed,” said Colombo.

Bank of Marin also purchased a Toyota van to shuttle train riders to its Novato headquarters from the Hamilton station in the morning.

“In addition, we give employees access to our corporate Uber account so they can take a car to or from their office and the station,” said Colombo.

Colombo said the bank is trying to partner with other employers in its office park to run transportation to and from the Novato-San Marin station more frequently.

“There’s a concentration of businesses in our office park, but we couldn’t get a lot of traction with finding partners. We are continuing to look into this,” said Colombo.

More trains may increase ridership

Employers agree that having more SMART train cars and running trains more frequently would help increase employee ridership.

“Health care is a 24-hour business. If service was later and more frequent, we might see more use,” said Ralston.

Colombo said the number one concern was trains not running often enough.

“The best encouragement for employees to take the train is other employees talking to them about it,” said Colombo.

A media spokesperson for SMART said it has noticed a strong demand for more frequent service.

“We are currently working hard to expand and improve our schedule by filling that gap in afternoon service and expanding service on the weekends to include earlier runs,” said Jeanne Mariani-Belding.

Sihakom said adding more cars to certain trains would help.

“(Train 4) leaves Sonoma County Airport at 6:19 a.m. By the time it gets to Petaluma downtown at 6:55 (a.m.), it is standing room only. People are crammed in up and down the aisles, (often) in the doorways with bicycles. It’s not safe,” said Sihakom.

Sihakom suggested SMART collaborate with cities to offer better parking.

“The stations are not necessarily located in places where people live close enough to walk, bike, or where other modes of connections are available or convenient,” said Sihakom.

What employees like about SMART

Employers report that employees enjoy traveling on the SMART train because it is clean, safe, runs smoothly, and offers amenities like bathrooms, coffee, and concessions.

“Employees say the train is very comfortable and quiet. They like the free WiFi, the coffee in the morning, and the bar in the evening,” said Colombo.

Sihakom said the 20-minute train ride gives her time to press pause and clear her mind before and after work.

“I actually avoid looking at emails so I can come into work with a positive and fresh mindset. The train ride home is my time to decompress,” said Sihakom.

Mariani-Belding of SMART said one of the things she hears most often from passengers is how taking the train has improved their quality of life.

“They don’t have the stress of sitting in traffic gridlock trying to make it in to work on time or fighting traffic to get home," she said. "They get to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. It (the train) gives them more time to spend with friends and family. Our passengers also talk about the friendships they have built with their fellow commuters. We…hear about the fact that the trains are…just a more pleasant way to commute.”

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