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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, December 30, 2013, 6:30 am

2014 Trends: Transportation: North Bay transit projects to reach milestones

Airport runway, station projects to offer more connections

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    2014 TrendsA transformative moment in North Bay mass transportation will draw yet closer in 2014, as construction continues on key airport expansion and passenger rail projects that together stand to reshape the transit of workers and visitors both within the region and beyond.

    Those two projects are the lengthening of runways at Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport and the construction of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit system. The runway project is expected to be complete in November, and rail project is set to make significant strides in 2014.

    Those efforts will include continued work by SMART officials to secure new funding for the passenger-rail system, offering a hope that the system will launch with connectivity between the North Bay’s only commercial airport and the Larkspur Ferry Terminal in Marin County.

    SMART“It should definitely help us get more passengers from Marin,” said Jon Stout, airport general manager. “We’d be one of the smallest airports in the country with access to rail.”

    Construction at the airport officially broke ground in August. It’s a $53.8 million project involving 12 years of planning and meant to bring the airport into compliance with new federal standards.

    Those requirements include a realignment from the current “V” formation for the airport’s two runways, along with an 885-foot lengthening of the main runway and a 200-foot lengthening of the secondary runway. Federal contributions will fund the majority of the improvements.

    More air travel, destinations

    Yet while that work hinges largely on regulatory requirements, airport officials and others in the North Bay have long noted that the extension of those runways could also allow for larger and longer-range commercial aircraft. That capacity will likely raise the facility’s attractiveness to new commercial carriers, and create the potential for new destinations for nonstop service.

    “Talking to them in the fall — that we actually broke ground — really piqued their interest,” Mr. Stout said.

    That potential, particularly for eastern destinations like Colorado, has already had an impact on the long-term planning for North Bay businesses. American AgCredit, the $6 billion-asset farm credit lender based in Santa Rosa, chose to build its new 120,000-square-foot headquarters near the airport based partially on the potential for future flights to its offices in the central United States.

    SMART train pathwayThe onset of the project has also served as a signal for carriers, with ongoing talks for possible service to Denver via United Airlines, Phoenix via U.S. Air, Las Vegas via Allegiant Air and Salt Lake City via Delta Air Lines, according to an airport presentation earlier this year. Other possible destinations include Reno, Palm Springs, Orange County, Long Beach and Hawaii, with international service to Guadalajara.

    Yet even without those destinations, the airport has seen commercial traffic increasing at a steady pace over the past few years. It was in September that the airport’s commercial carrier, Horizon Air, first saw traffic exceed its prerecession levels.

    Construction is expected to be completed in late 2014. The airline currently services Seattle, Portland, San Diego and Los Angeles.

    Rail near the airport

    The increased utilization of the airport by local travelers and visitors alike – along with the surrounding area’s density for North Bay jobs – have long drawn interest in the idea of constructing a passenger rail station in the area. Yet it was only this month that SMART officials announced the acquisition of funding to build such a station, approximately one mile east of the airport itself.

    The station was only mentioned as a possibility in SMART’s 2006 environmental impact report, but has received renewed attention under General Manager Farhad Mansourian and the decision by SMART to construct an operations and maintenance facility on Airport Boulevard.

    “This station probably has more jobs located within one mile of it than any other in the SMART system,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and among the voices who have noted the potential for the system to support bicycle transportation in the North Bay.

    With the $21.8 million station all but guaranteed to be operational by the system’s launch, attention has now shifted to ongoing efforts to extend the current southern terminus in downtown San Rafael to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.

    A diminished funding outlook prompted SMART to put off its full plans for a system spanning as far north as Cloverdale, with a core “initial operating segment” expected to accommodate the vast majority of commuter traffic. Yet the connection to the Larkspur ferry has remained an ongoing priority, providing what some say is a vital link to yet another transit system and, ultimately, San Francisco.

    The MTC is expected to vote on funding for the Larkspur extension in 2014. The Transportation Authority of Marin in October endorsed $11.4 million from a Bay Area-wide pool of bridge toll funds for the project, with $2 million already awarded for underlying engineering work under the federal “Small Starts” program.

    SMART awarded $70 million to Oakland-based Shimmick Construction in November for construction of its Airport Blvd. maintenance facility and a stretch of track from Marin Civic Center to downtown San Rafael. The agency has awarded a total of $179.8 million to the Alameda-based joint venture Stacy and Witbeck/Herzog for construction elsewhere in the system.

    The total cost for that phase is estimated at around $360 million, supported in part by a voter-approved, quarter-cent sales tax measure in Marin and Sonoma counties called Measure Q.

    Officials for the passenger rail project are quick to note that their efforts to secure funding include construction of the stretch to Cloverdale. When ultimately completed, the system and corresponding pedestrian/bicycle pathway will span almost the entirety of both Marin and Sonoma Counties for a total of 70 miles.

    Closer to Windsor, Cloverdale

    “By going to the airport, we’re that much closer to Windsor, and that much closer to Cloverdale,” said SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian, who noted in a recent meeting of SMART’s board of directors that the system has now added three stations to its planned offerings after launch.

    Many have noted that the SMART system and an expanded airport could have obvious synergistic benefits, allowing similar utilization as is possible through Bay Area Rapid Transit and the larger San Francisco and Oakland international airports.

    Yet that future remains several years away, with 2014 likely to mark the underlying work that stands to bring the North Bay closer to the kind of transit options available in other Bay Area regions.

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