North Bay employers offer SMART train incentives to ease commutes
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.