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Successful transit is convenient

Any day now, North Bay commuters will have another option to travel the increasingly congested Highway 101 corridor. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which has been in the works for nearly nine years now, is potentially weeks away from launching train service, allowing commuters to avoid the freeway on the commute from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

SMART has been offering the public free preview rides while it awaits final approval from federal railroad officials, which is expected to happen before the autumn leaves begin falling. If you haven’t yet ridden on the train, you should, if only for the novelty of the experience.

The trip, especially between Petaluma and Novato, takes in some beautiful scenery as the train skirts the wetlands along the Petaluma River. This open space, which is not visible to motorists on Highway 101, has long been hidden from public view. Besides taking in the views, passengers can stretch out in comfy faux-leather seats, get some work done using the Wifi, grab a snack or use the restroom, all while zipping gleefully past drivers stuck in freeway traffic.

But SMART was designed to be more than a sightseeing excursion train. Once service ramps up, it is expected to carry thousands of commuters each day to North Bay jobs.

We want SMART to be successful so that taxpayers receive a good return on their investment. In order for SMART to claim success, it needs strong ridership. In order to attract riders, it needs to be useful and convenient for commuters.

In Petaluma, efforts are underway to make the transit system as useful and convenient as possible, but more can be done. The biggest initial challenge will be getting riders to the station.

Petaluma Transit recently revamped its bus schedules in order to link to the SMART train. While this effort is commendable, it is hard to imagine many people making a daily morning commute involving a Petaluma Transit bus, the SMART train, potentially another bus at the other end, and then doing the same in reverse in the evening.

More likely, commuters will make their own way to the stations. Petaluma, which is bifurcated by Highway 101, was promised two train stations, one for each side of the freeway, with the east side station planned to host the bulk of the parking needs for the two stations. The recession forced the rail agency to postpone development of the east side station until sometime after the launch of service, although there is an agreement to build the Corona Road station with a 150-space parking garage.

In the meantime, the only SMART stop Petaluma commuters have is the downtown station on Lakeville Street, and parking there is limited to 83 spaces reserved for transit riders. Those who live near the station hopefully will walk or ride bikes — there is bike parking at the station and bikes are allowed on the trains.

The rest of Petaluma’s commuters will have to drive, or carpool, and hope they can snag one of the 83 parking spots that SMART and the city of Petaluma created. SMART projects that 130 daily riders will use the downtown Petaluma station, meaning that if every commuter drove their own car to the station, there would not be enough parking spots.

The city of Petaluma should continue to look for land near the SMART station for additional parking. If commuters drive to the station and find that all the parking is full, they will likely end up staying in their cars and driving to work, which would defeat the whole purpose of this revolutionary North Bay transit project.