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Caltrans rolling out SMART rail plan linking Sonoma, Marin, Solano counties

A section of highway identified as a commuter’s nightmare year after year is on track for traffic relief through a state-driven transportation study up for review starting this month that examines a rail connection between Sonoma, Marin and Solano counties.

The California Department of Transportation commissioned the study in May 2019 through the Solano Transportation Authority and Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit to review the feasibility of running a rail extension from Marin County east along the Interstate 80 corridor. The current version of the rail plan, which was finalized a year ago, will receive 60 days of public comment early this year.

The Solano County extension, designed to alleviate traffic congestion in and out of the San Francisco Bay Area, is part of the 2022 State Rail Plan. The rail plan now updated since its 2018 inception had “identified gaps in the system that need additional planning, including the Solano County hub and the adjacent corridor between Marin and Solano counties,” Caltrans spokesman Will Arnold said.

Currently, the SMART trains run in a north-to-south direction over a 45-mile stretch linking Sonoma and Marin counties. Future connections are planned for Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County.

But the enhanced growth in Solano County driven partly by more biotech companies and other firms opening up in the area makes the idea of rail traffic more promising. On any given weekday morning, Amtrak trains bound to San Francisco from Davis carry many commuters. But frequent stops that also involve tourists turn the one-way commute into an almost two-hour venture.

“We support the development of local infrastructure and transportation improvements that would not only ease commute times for our employees, but for others in Solano County, which is becoming a burgeoning biotechnology and life sciences manufacturing hub,” said Liz Wentworth-Kelly, head of materials management and business operations at Genentech. The biotech firm has had a production facility in Vacaville for 23 years.

The 90-page study examined seven potential Solano County rail station sites and pinpointed the Suisun-Fairfield Amtrak Station as a key recommendation to connect with the Union Pacific Railroad line to and from the Novato-Hamilton station. The Suisun-Fairfield station is due for a major infrastructure upgrade that involves a barrier between passengers and the railroad tracks, platform improvements, additional parking and bus transfer facilities. Four other possible sites were looked at in Cordelia southwest of the city of Fairfield.

After a thorough evaluation, SMART and Solano County officials discovered the connection will cost between $780 million and $1.3 billion. The difference is equipment and design needed to accommodate faster trains.

“Connecting I-80 to the SMART corridor would create options where none existed,” said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a transportation agency formed in 1970 that coordinates transit for nine counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

Goodwin said that, although the proposal presents a good option for commuters, it’s difficult to speculate on the overall impact of providing more east-to-west transit options to the region.

“It’s premature. It takes generations for new travel patterns to emerge,” he said.

If the motoring traffic backed up on Highway 37 is any indication, the trains may be crowded. After all, rock band Train immortalized the west-east highway linking Sonoma and Napa counties with Interstate 80 in its 2012 album titled “California 37.” The San Francisco band formed in 1993 with singer Pat Monahan as the lead singer often releases tunes describing life in the Bay Area.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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