Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, nicknamed SMART, is entering its final stages of testing this week before an expected soon-to-come soft opening. SMART officials say they just need the OK from a federal audit that begins today, but they were hesitant to set a firm launch date at a media event last week.
The North Bay’s first passenger train in nearly 60 years, SMART will initially run 43 miles between the Sonoma County Airport and downtown San Rafael. Two more phases will later complete the full route from Larkspur to Cloverdale.
This final audit by the Federal Railroad Administration, which begins today and will run until Thursday, will test the train operations and ensure the service is safe to ride.
The system will also be tested for positive train control, or PTC, which will be required by all passenger train services by 2018. PTC is a safety mechanism that notifies conductors if their train exceeds a set speed limit, and will automatically stop the train if the conductor doesn’t jump into action.
SMART officials say they are planning a soft launch of service soon, possibly as early as June 16, though they have not settled on dates and times. During the soft launch period, rides will be free, but passengers shouldn't expect a fully fleshed-out commute schedule.
A full SMART launch is expected within the next two months, possibly by late July. At that point, the train will make stops at all the stations along the initial route, including in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Novato. Officials had previously aimed for "late spring 2017" as a launch date for the train, after a design flaw delayed the planned 2016 launch.
Fares are expected to be half-price until Labor Day, as the service gets up to speed. Eventually, one-way tickets will cost between $3.50 for the shortest trip and $11.50 for the longest trip, with senior and youth discounts, as well as Clipper Card compatibility.
This first phase of the project -- the 43-mile stretch of train and some of the accompanying bike paths -- cost around $500 million, according to spokeswoman Jeanne Mariani-Belding. In 2008, voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the train and bike and pedestrian paths, but a downturn in the economy left the agency with insufficient funds to launch the train by the original 2014 date.
Mariani-Belding said the agency has already raised the funds for the second phase and will begin construction this summer. That phase will extend the service 2 miles south to Larkspur where passengers can catch the ferry into San Francisco. In the meantime, there will be a free shuttle from the downtown San Rafael station to the Larkspur ferry terminal.
The third and final phase will complete the 70-mile train system and will extend north into Cloverdale, with stops in Windsor and Healdsburg. The agency is still in the process of finding funds for this final stretch.