By Mark Prado, The Marin Independent Journal

SMART train operator DeAndre Bess makes a test run of a train north of Novato in October. (Robert Tong Marin Independent Journal)

SMART train operator DeAndre Bess makes a test run of a train north of Novato in October. (Robert Tong Marin Independent Journal)

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency is set to launch service on a 43-mile line stretching from downtown San Rafael to the Santa Rosa Airport later this year.

But recruiting engineers, signal technicians and vehicle maintenance technicians is proving to be a challenge because of the costs to live in the region. In response, the agency board approved an 11 percent pay increase for those positions.

“The cost of housing has been an issue in recruiting and retaining,” Lisa Hansley, SMART’s human resources manager, told the rail board last week. “It has been a challenge for us. Our salaries are not competitive.”

SMART is up against agencies such as BART, Caltrain, Amtrak and the Altamont Commuter Express, some of which offer $10,000 “signing bonuses” to accept employment.

“We are competing against the big dogs for the same pool of applicants,” said Erin McGrath, the agency’s chief financial officer.

Because passenger rail has not existed in the North Bay for several decades, the majority of applicants live in counties outside the North Bay or in other states. Several qualified candidates have declined job offers after being unable to afford or find housing in the area, SMART officials said.

The median price of a Marin home was $1.2 million last month, up 13 percent from the previous June, a real estate information service reported last week.

The May and June medians were the same this year, reaching a record high of $1.2 million despite predictions of a flattening in prices, according to Irvine-based CoreLogic.


Across the Bay Area, prices for resale single-family homes increased in every county except Napa, where prices were flat. Marin saw the highest jump compared with last June, with prices up 13 percent.

In three cases, SMART hired people who eventually had to leave the area because of the cost of living and housing issues.

In addition, a number of prospective SMART employees has chosen to stay in their current jobs because of the disparity between Railroad Retirement Board benefits and a new CalPERS PEPRA pension tier that is assigned to all new SMART employees.

The top hourly salary for SMART’s engineer job class had been $37.14, or $77,250 annually. The current average wage for a passenger locomotive engineer in the Bay Area is $40.69 per hour. The national average wage is $42.68 or $11,000 more than what SMART was paying.

The SMART board pay hike approved last week now has engineers making up to $40.02 an hour or $83,251 annually.

That and the other increases in salaries will cost the agency $200,000. Additionally, it will spend another $150,000 for a program to pay relocation costs for employees who come from more than 250 miles away.

With the start of service looming and a dearth of engineers, SMART will also seek to hire conductors to take the place of a second engineer on the trains.

The move creates a bigger candidate pool to ensure that two staff persons are on the train at all times. A conductor is certified to assist with certain train movements, but aren’t qualified to operate the train. They would be paired with an engineer. Because the conductor job class is lower in pay than the engineer, there would be savings to the agency. Conductors would earn a maximum of $34 an hour or $70,720 annually.

The commuter rail project is being phased, and the $438 million San Rafael-to-Santa Rosa line will kick off service, although a date has not been announced. —— (c)2016 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Visit The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) at www.marinij.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. AMX-2016-07-24T00:01:00-04:00