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SMART expanding capacity on its most popular routes

The SMART train with three cars pulls into the station in Petaluma, on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

J.D. MORRIS,

SMART has added an extra car to some of its most popular trips to provide more room for the heaviest crowds of commuters, many of whom bring bicycles on board the trains.

The transit agency, which began service in late August, earlier this month started operating a three-car train during four round trips each day. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials said the addition of the third car — trains usually travel in pairs — has proved popular among riders, and the system may expand the larger service to other runs later.

“We waited a few months to see how our ridership would settle out on all of the different trips,” said Deb Fudge, the mayor of Windsor and chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors. “So we evaluated the trips that could really use a third train, both for riders and also for bicyclists.”

SMART’s three-car train makes eight trips on the 43-mile line between northern Santa Rosa and San Rafael, according to Jeanne Mariani-Belding, a spokeswoman for the transit agency. The three-car train departs southbound from the Sonoma County Airport at 4:19 a.m., 7:19 a.m., 2:19 p.m. and 5:19 p.m., Mariani-Belding said. It leaves northbound from San Rafael at 5:59 a.m., 8:59 a.m., 3:59 p.m. and 6:59  p.m., she said.

While the standard pairs allow passengers to travel directly between each car, riders on the three-car trains cannot leave the extra car until the train is stopped. The third car has a restroom but no snack bar, since the cars are designed to include only one of those.

“Anybody that wants to buy a cup of coffee and is in that car that doesn’t allow them to walk all the way through is going to have to leave the car at one station and race over to the other one,” said Steve Birdlebough of the group Friends of SMART. “It’s kind of a nuisance, but it will relieve some of the congestion, and that’s a good thing. And it’ll provide more room for bicycles.”

Since service began Aug. 25, SMART’s weekly ridership has averaged 15,300, below the agency’s projection of 15,600, according to the most recent monthly figures dated Nov. 1. Over the same time period, SMART reported more than $74,300 in weekly fare revenue, well above the more than $68,000 weekly average required to meet budget, the report said.

Mariani-Belding said she was unable to provide more recent figures, and general manager Farhad Mansourian was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Before the transit agency adds any more three-car runs, SMART wants to close a critical 90- minute gap in its afternoon schedule, officials said. Northbound trains don’t run at all between 5:29 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. — a high-demand commuting time, Mariani-Belding said.

SMART needs to hire more engineers to narrow that window, according to Fudge, but the agency has struggled to do so because of the high cost and low availability of housing in Sonoma County. The problem has been further complicated by the thousands of homes destroyed in the wildfires last month.

“We were having trouble before the fires — now house prices and rents are going up and we’re like, ‘Oh my God,’  ” Fudge said. “The ones (engineers) that are here are OK. We’re trying to attract more. We’re always recruiting engineers and we’re trying to be creative with helping them find housing. ... We have the train sets to run more often. We just need the people to do it.”