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By Mariana Raschke, Bay News Rising staff reporter–
At the break of dawn, when the hills of Sonoma are covered in a morning fog, Highway 101 is already at a standstill with cars inching their way southbound.
An arduous drive is an everyday occurrence for many North Bay commuters. Unlike parts of the Bay Area served by BART or Caltrain, the North Bay’s only link to employment centers in other counties is Highway 101.
Over 20,000 Sonoma County residents commute south to work in neighboring counties, says Chris Barney, transportation planner for Sonoma County Transportation Authority. Economic recovery and population growth in the past ten years, he says, has spurred an increase of congestion along Highway 101 and lengthened commutes.
After years of delay, a rail line is scheduled to begin limited service by the end of the year, connecting Santa Rosa and San Rafael. But for now, North Bay commuters are forced to spend hours a day in their cars.
Carol Carlson, a Petaluma resident who works in San Rafael, said that when she started her commute 15 years ago, the drive lasted 25 minutes each way; now it can take over an hour. “The Novato narrows has sort of exploded into a massive traffic jam,” she said, referring to the stretch of highway along Petaluma and Novato where three lanes merge into two and traffic slows down to a near crawl.
When Carlson began her job at Dominican University, she worked 9 to 5, but now she’s pushing her commute earlier each day to avoid the worst of morning traffic. By 5:30 a.m. Carlson is out the door and on her way to work, but even then she cannot avoid the frustrating tangle of vehicles. Despite this, Carlson believes her commute is a tradeoff worth the satisfaction she gets from her job at a nonprofit.
“I could find a job closer to home, but not in the niche I want,” she said.
Like a lot of other Bay Area residents, Carlson said she can’t move closer to her job because housing in many areas is simply too expensive. A house similar to the one she now owns would cost about $1.5 million in Marin County and would require her to devote half of her income to just paying the mortgage.
Kimberly Willis commuted from Petaluma to Oakland for years. She’s a hospital chaplain and couldn’t find work in her profession close to home so she put up with an hours-long commute.
Driving 120 miles a day took a tool on her personal life, and was hard on her health, Willis said. She was eating most of her meals away from home and spending hours dealing with the stress of being behind the wheel.
“As I got out of the car the neighbors probably saw me acting like I was 90 years old, unfolding myself out of the car” said Willis. “I was commuting about 2,000 miles a month and your body pays a price.”
After four years a job finally materialized in the North Bay, and Willis says her life is much better.
Relief on the way
There are a few alternatives for commuters in the North Bay who want to avoid driving alone.
There’s Rideshare, a service that pairs up drivers with people who have similar commutes, and commuters can ride Golden Gate Transit buses and ferries to San Francisco and the East Bay.
Justin Kudo rides Golden Gate Transit route 101 from his home in San Francisco to his job in Marin County. Kudo said he spends nearly two hours commuting back and forth, even though his office is relatively close. “If you miss your bus you have to wait an hour for the next one, so you have to get to the bus stop early” said Kudo.
By the end of the year, the first phase of Sonoma County’s diesel-powered SMART rail line will come into service, connecting Santa Rosa and San Rafael, a distance of about 43 miles that includes 10 stops.
SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, will utilize the right-of-way used by the historic Northwestern Pacific railroad and will eventually connect Cloverdale and Larkspur, a distance of 70 miles.
A ride from Petaluma to downtown San Rafael carries a one-way fare of $7.50, although there are discounts for seniors, youth, college students, veterans and passengers with disabilities. Employers will be able to purchase discounted passes for employees.