SMART trains giving free preview rides in the North Bay

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The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District is offering free preview rides on its train between Rohnert Park and the Marin Civic Center stations starting Thursday. (Wayne Freedman)

The SMART Railway announced a 'soft opening' later this week, with free preview rides beginning on Thursday.

That's good news for residents of Sonoma and Marin Counties. First estimates had the half-billion dollar commuter railroad opening in November. Then, after discovering an engine problem, it pushed the opening back to early June.

Now, it's almost July. SMART expects final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration very soon. Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt says, "Two weeks."

Meantime, SMART continues to deal with local push-back. Of the railroad's sixty-four crossings, none have been more troublesome than the one in Penngrove, where residents worry about a tight, blind curve, inadequate crossing arms, cars staling on the track, and now, a fence that has squeezed the sidewalk to just thirty inches. "They have been responsive at the point of a gun," said William Fishman. "SMART has not consulted us to find out what our community needs are."



SMART installed the fences to keep people from crossing the track in its right-of-way. Penngrove residents complain that the new fencing pushes them into traffic. "As far as I am concerned, they are on notice, right now, for their liability if a pedestrian gets hit," said Melinda Moreaux.

SMART insists the crossing is safe, despite installing flagmen who work the crossing all day. "The flaggers are here as a safety precaution and serve as extra eyes and ears for SMART," said the railroad's chief of police, Jennifer Welch.

And yet, SMART has announced it will be putting in additional gates, plus adding other safety measures.

Sonoma County, meantime, will spend $2.25 million to improve pedestrian and automotive safety.

Supervisor Rabbitt notes that nothing is likely to perfect when building a half-billion dollar railroad from scratch. But, we had to ask, why didn't SMART get this right the first time?

"It is going to be much better," said Rabbitt. "Should it have been done right from Day 1? Absolutely."

It appears that while railroads run on strict timetables, that building them does not

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