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SANTA ROSA -- Construction of a commuter rail line between Sonoma and Marin Counties could begin as soon as tomorrow after the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board of Directors today voted unanimously to approve a $103 million design-build contract with the joint venture of Alameda-based Stacy and Witbeck Inc. and Herzog Contracting Corp.

The work could create 1,000 jobs “up front,” with the potential to create about 5,000 jobs in five years, said George Furnanz, chief operating officer of Stacy and Witbeck. That estimate surpasses SMART’s projection of 900 immediate jobs. Mr. Furnanz said that the firm’s experience with rail projects made him confident in the number. The two companies have collaborated on rail projects for the past 10 years.

“This is all we do -- transit and commuter stuff,” Mr. Funanz said. “It’s amazing the growth you see when you put those rail systems in.”

The board voted to approve the contract during a special meeting in Santa Rosa, following the recommendations in a staff report shared with the media Thursday.

The contract involves construction from Santa Rosa to Marin Civic Center. Efforts to award a second contract for the segment between Marin Civic Center and downtown San Rafael are on hold while the group RepealSMART collects signatures for a ballot measure to repeal Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved in 2008 to help fund SMART.

Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer, said that the remaining stretch involves complications like tunnel construction and traffic concerns. If the repeal effort fails to collect enough signatures for a ballot measure by Jan. 27, the second contract could be approved by late 2012 or early 2013, he said. However, work related to the first contract is moving ahead.

Meanwhile, more Measure Q funds are flowing to the project. SMART received its highest-ever check from the state in December, for $3 million, representing Measure Q income from the third calendar quarter of 2011, according to Erin McGrath, the transit authority's new CFO. That was 9 percent more than a year before.

The contract will involve the construction of what SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian called the system’s “backbone.” Crews will construct or rehabilitate 37 miles of track, rehabilitate or build 20 bridges, lay the groundwork for nine stations and build numerous railroad crossings.

The stretch describes what SMART calls the system’s “initial operating segment,” which will stretch from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County to San Rafael in Marin County. Additional funding will be needed to complete the full system from Cloverdale in Sonoma to Larkspur in Marin.

Two stations not originally planned for the initial operating segment will now be constructed: the Guerneville Road station in northern Santa Rosa and Atherton Station in northern Novato. Crews will also raise the Novato Creek bridge several feet to prevent flooding, additional work added through contract negotiations.

The SMART board on Monday also voted to study the relocation of the proposed Rohnert Park station. The Rohnert Park City Council in April recommended the station be moved from Roberts Lake Road to the more central Rohnert Park Expressway, pledging $35,000 to reimburse SMART for the environmental review.

A staff report for that station estimated that the relocation would cost $500,000, though a more detailed construction estimate is pending.

The higher population density around the new location, along with the Guerneville station, bumped up the average density for all the stations above the threshold to be eligible for regional funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and allowed for the "activation" of the Atherton station. That threshold is an average of 2,200 existing or permitted residential units around a station, according to the commission's transit-oriented development policy. 

Two more contracts will be awarded for the construction of the initial operating segment, which is targeted for completion in 2015--16, according to Mr. Mansourian.