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.
Providing future rail commuters an option to connect directly to ferry systems and other Bay Area transit infrastructure running through San Francisco – meaning less miles by car or bus -- would play a major role in realizing the broader vision and attractiveness of SMART, said Robert Eyler, CEO of the Marin Economic Forum and director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University.
A station at Larkspur would also benefit conditions at the currently planned terminus in downtown San Rafael, he said.
“It changes the dynamics of the San Rafael Transport Hub in terms of this project from a congested changeover stop to an actual quick stop on the train,” he said.
In addition to SMART’s award, the MTC reallocated $20 million to fill gaps in a 25-mile bicycle and pedestrian corridor known as the North-South Greenway, including construction of a bicycle-pedestrian path over Corte Madera Creek.
SMART will devote $3 million for a dedicated permanent rail crossing at Anderson Drive in San Rafael as part of the Larkspur project, according to the rail agency.
Recent advancements in funding SMART’s Larkspur connection have dovetailed with other talks concerning development in the half-mile radius surrounding the proposed station area, approximately one-and-a-half miles east of the city’s downtown core. The draft “Larkspur Smart Station Area Plan,” intended in part to help Larkspur comply with state-mandated affordable housing requirements, proposes more than half of 920 new dwelling units in the area be affordable to families earning below 120 percent of median income.
The proposal, still under discussion, also includes 39,500 square feet of office space, 60,000 square feet of hotel space and 77,500 square feet for retail, all a short distance from the proposed station and the ferry terminal.
The MTC awarded Larkspur $480,000 in January 2011 to study transit-oriented development at the site, with an additional $120,000 granted collectively from the Transportation Authority of Marin, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, the county of Marin, SMART and Larkspur itself.
The passenger rail system is ultimately expected to span a 70-mile stretch between Cloverdale in Sonoma County and Larkspur in Marin. Yet the recent recession’s impact on the two-county sales tax that helps fund the project prompted SMART’s directors to instead pursue a phased approach, with the first segment expected to cost around $360 million.