Sonoma County Tourism Weighs in on More Rail Connections, Less Traffic to Tourist Destinations in Sonoma County

As progressive as California is in so many ways, moving people around in an efficient manner isn’t one of its strengths. Case in point: the state’s limited rail service.

This creates a conundrum for North Bay tourism leaders who are conscientious of the negative environmental impact of more cars on the road, as well as the headaches of sitting in traffic. Add to that the difficulty for tourists to reach the popular destinations by car that lured them to Wine Country in the first place.

“We will always encourage people to use trains and public transportation as much as they can. It cuts down on emissions and in other ways keeps Sonoma County sustainable,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. “Sometimes it’s difficult for travelers to figure how to incorporate those aspects into their trips.”

To help educate folks, her agency in January released an Instagram reel telling people about the public transit option from Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s SMART Connect, a small on-demand bus, takes people from the airport to the nearest SMART train station, and vice versa.

SMART has 12 stations in the two-county area. Plans are in the works books to build stations in Novato and as far north as Cloverdale.

Vecchio believes as the number of SMART train stations increase, and if future Amtrak bus routes were added, it would be ideal if they were within walking distance to Sonoma County’s popular town centers like downtown Santa Rosa and its nearby Railroad Square, Healdsburg Plaza, Old Downtown Windsor and Sonoma Plaza in the city of Sonoma.

Because rail service is limited in the North Bay, it’s not at the top of local tourism officials’ lists of transportation options to tout.

“Expanded service from Amtrak or even BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) would be a welcome topic among vested parties, but at this point I am not aware of any such discussion on the table,” said Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley.

Napa’s tourism agency, however, does reference rail travel in its 2023 and 2024 visitor guide magazines.

The current edition says, “Whether traveling from the Bay Area, the Central Valley or Bakersfield, Amtrak San Joaquins can get you to Napa Valley. Arrive at downtown Napa’s Soscol Gateway Transit Center in no time.”

Gallagher added, “In addition to the Amtrak San Joaquins service, the San Francisco–Vallejo ferry service is a very convenient mode of transportation for those travelers specifically coming in from the city.”

North Bay options

Speaking of Vallejo, visitors to Solano County have access to two Amtrak stations. Amtrak’s Fairfield–Vacaville station in Fairfield, which runs along the Capitol Corridor line, opened in November 2017. The Suisun–Fairfield station in Suisun City opened more than 100 years ago, in 1914.

To accommodate travelers in the North Bay where rail service isn’t available, Amtrak offers buses to get to the tracks. This is how Amtrak can boast of more than 150 destinations in California.

For example, an Amtrak bus takes people between downtown Napa and the Martinez train station. Another bus stops multiple places in Sonoma County.

A tricky proposition

In Marin County, other than the SMART train, public transportation options are even more limited because there are no Amtrak bus routes. The county also doesn’t have any BART trains because it opted out of being part of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system more than 50 years ago when it first opened in September 1972.

Other options for actual Amtrak train stations in the greater Bay Area include Antioch-Pittsburg, Berkeley, Emeryville, Fremont, Hayward, two in Oakland, San Jose and two in Santa Clara.

Limitations and obstacles

In total, California has the most Amtrak stations in the United States, with more than 70.

One of Amtrak’s issues is that it does not own any of the rails it uses. That is why expansion can be tricky.

Congress created Amtrak in 1970 to be responsible for most intercity rail service in the country after private companies were losing money. Even so, Amtrak has been operating with a deficit for most of those 50-plus years. Its future is always precarious because Congress controls its purse strings.

Caltrans, the state’s transportation department, is responsible for rail service. But its 2023 California State Rail Plan is a year behind in getting approved, with the final document expected to be released in March.

Reasons for hope

Money for rail projects across the United States was part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed in 2021. In December, $8.1 billion for passenger rail projects was released by the Federal Railroad Administration.

A half-million dollars of that larger pool is coming to Caltrans to help fund the connection of the Novato SMART train station to Amtrak’s depot in Suisun City. The entire project, at least as of projections from a 2019 study, has a price tag in the $1 billion range.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority will receive more than $3 billion of those federal dollars for the country’s first electrified 220 mph high-speed rail system, according to the state.

Ultimately, the high-speed train is slated to run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles area in less than three hours, with extension to Sacramento and San Diego. This will include 800 miles and possibly 24 stations.

Once built, it could be a reason for North Bay transit and tourism officials to find more ways to connect to those stations — for tourists, commuters and commerce.