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Petaluma buses linked to new SMART train


Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a series looking at Petaluma commuting as SMART prepares to debut train service.

As the North Bay gears up for the launch of the first commuter rail service in decades, Petaluma Transit last week rolled out tweaks to several bus routes to help residents connect to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit trains.

Implemented June 25, the modifications to increase trip frequency and alter routes are intended to provide a seamless connection, syncing buses with train arrivals and departures. Those changes came ahead of the formal launch of the rail service expected this summer.

“We are closely monitoring these routes,” Transit Manager Joe Rye said. “It’s kind of an advantage to us that SMART isn’t running and we’re implementing this in the summer. If changes need to happen, we have that experience. … So far, so good.”

Among the changes is a realignment of Route 24, which is now on a more direct track between the downtown station and the business park near the Kaiser Permanente campus along Lakeville Highway.

The new Route 10, formerly known as Route 1, eliminates the Petaluma Boulevard South segment of the service, but trips to St. Vincent de Paul High School were added at select times. The route runs mainly along Petaluma Boulevard North to first serve downtown before heading to the Petaluma Factory Outlets.

The east side Route 3 was extended to reach Ely Boulevard south of Casa Grande Road and will serve the Enclave at Adobe Creek apartments.

A new bus stop was constructed at D Street near the downtown train platform to better serve public transit users and serve as a launching and ending point for some routes, Rye said.

On weekdays, the earliest bus takes off just before 6:30 a.m., a time frame that misses the scheduled departure of some early trains. Transit officials hope that SMART’s new dirt parking lot, which offers 50 temporary paid parking spots and 25 bike racks near the downtown station, will serve those commuters. Evening hours were also shortened on some routes and Saturday runs were eliminated on select lines, Rye said.

It’s unclear how SMART will impact Petaluma Transit’s overall ridership or how high the demand for service will be, Rye said. Last fiscal year, ridership averaged 30,000 monthly passengers and 350,000 riders per year.

“Like everyone else, we don’t know what the true SMART demand is going to be until they run regular service,” he said. “We’re taking a wait and see approach and we’re starting with this lineup and seeing how things evolve.”

Last week, SMART began offering limited free public preview rides, though the agency is still waiting for federal officials to wrap up a review of the line’s positive train control system, which automatically stops service in an emergency. A firm launch date has not been announced.

The framework for the Petaluma bus route changes are outlined in the city’s Short Range-Transit Plan, a document approved by the city council last year that also examines plans for a future east side station. The plan must be updated every four years to qualify for some federal funding.

The changes will save about $70,000 in the upcoming fiscal year, which will be offset by increasing labor costs, Senior Transit Specialist Emily Betts said. Bus fares, which currently range from $1.50 for adults to 75 cents for seniors and those with disabilities, are not expected to increase in correlation with the route changes, Rye said. SMART riders who use Clipper cards and ride Petaluma Transit will receive a transfer discount.

David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County Supervisor who sits on SMART’s Board of Directors, praised Petaluma Transit’s efforts to bolster connectivity.

“I’m impressed with the collaboration and cooperation,” he said. “Everyone knows the importance of the first and last mile for the train’s success and Petaluma altering its routes and being able to connect in that manner will hopefully be beneficial to a majority of residents.”

Dave Alden, a civil engineer and the former chair of the city’s transit advisory committee, described the routes and expanded schedule as striking a balance between meeting potential heightened demand for service while working within tight financial and infrastructure constraints.

“I think we’ve done the best we can,” he said. “There is the underlying problem of the fact that Petaluma has not been built to accommodate transit connectivity, so we struggle to connect all the people who truly need transit with where they need to get to.”

Leaders in Petaluma’s business community have been waiting for SMART’s launch before looking into the possibility of working with employers to craft plans to directly link SMART commuters to local companies, Petaluma Chamber of Commerce CEO Onita Pellegrini said.

While it’s not yet clear how the rail service will play into employees’ daily commute, she highlighted its larger impact in bringing out-of-towners to the city to infuse cash into the local economy.

“It’s easy to get on a train … and come up here and walk up and have lunch and go shopping in downtown Petaluma,” she said. “That will be great, but that will probably be more of your weekend and summer travel.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)