LARKSPUR — Efforts to connect the North Bay’s upcoming passenger rail system to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal took a major step forward Wednesday after a regional Bay Area transportation authority allocated what amounts to half of the necessary funds.
The $20 million award from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which redirects a pool of bridge toll funding once slated for a discarded highway interchange project between the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and Highway 101, is the most significant boost yet for the proposed southernmost stretch of Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit.
SMART is currently planning to begin service on a nearly 40-mile segment between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, a stretch expected to account for the majority of passenger volume in the system. Yet the Larkspur extension remains a priority, with those MTC funds raising the likelihood for additional federal grants and the possibility of a ferry connection at or near the expected start of rail service in 2016.
“This is an extremely important project to SMART. This is the foundation of the work that needs to go forward in Larkspur,” said Jake Mackenzie, Rohnert Park councilman and MTC commissioner.
The MTC also endorsed SMART’s efforts to obtain additional federal funding for the Larkspur segment. The rail agency obtained $2.5 million for the extension from the Federal Transportation Administration’s “Small Starts” program in September 2013, allowing it to begin early engineering work for a stretch expected to cost $40 million.
The grant joins other incremental funding measures that have allowed SMART to extend the scope of its planned initial operating segment, including a $16.7 million award from the MTC last year that played a key role in funding a four-mile extension to a site near the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport.
The recent award from the MTC involves a reserve of funds created by a voter-approved $1 increase to Bay Area bridge tolls in 2004. Known as Regional Measure 2, or RM2, it included specific transportation projects eligible for those funds throughout the region.
Marin County transportation planners approved a scaled-back package of RM2-related traffic and pedestrian improvements in September of 2013, cutting out the proposed freeway interchange and leaving the MTC with leftover funds to allocate elsewhere.
“After an exhaustive six-month review within the community, and after the consideration of the environmental review for the freeway portion of the project, it became clear that there wasn’t support within the cities and communities,” said Steve Kinsey, Marin County supervisor and MTC commissioner.
“I’m pleased that the public’s support of extending SMART and making a connection to the ferry is strong,” he said. “This is an opportunity for the MTC to leverage RM2 funds to see if we can lure the federal government to award a TIGER grant, which would be 50 percent of the project costs.”
News of that potential federal award, short for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery and administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is expected later this year, according to SMART. The program received around 700 project applications this year and expects to fund about 50, said SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.
Mr. Mansourian noted that SMART has been arguing the merits of the Larkspur extension to transportation officials in Washington, D.C. Projects eligible for TIGER grants can have as small as a 20 percent match, but a larger percentage of local dollars has traditionally helped applicants to stand out among others, according to the Department of Transportation.