Options to extend Sonoma-Marin commuter trains to Solano could cost as much as $1B

As officials of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit face gloomy fiscal projections and the need to ask voters to extend the sales tax support for its north-south commuter line- the agency has completed a state-funded study on establishing an east-west line from Novato to Suisun City in Solano County.

Like it does with its current fiscal problems, the agency faces this key question: How to pay for this futuristic plan with capital costs estimated at between $840 million and $1.22 billion.

Conducted over an 18-month period at a cost of $500,000 at the request of the state of California with funding provided to SMART during Gov. Jerry Brown's administration, this study was designed to fulfill goals outlined in Caltran's long-term aspirational vision found in the updated California Transportation Plan 2050.

Goals include improving travel times and relieving traffic congestion, enhancing inter-connectivity and multimodal mobility and expanding economic opportunities through the movement of people, freight and services. The major link now between Marin and Solano counties in the North Bay is the chronically congested and sometimes flooded Highway 37.

'During the feasibility study we looked at the overall concept in the state's 2050 rail plan,' said SMART Chief Engineer Bill Gamlen. 'Highway 37 is a logjam every day, with no end in sight. Every part of this proposed project would involve a major undertaking.'

The first 25 miles of this railway corridor along Highway 37 from Novato to the Napa River is owned by SMART with freight operations conducted by Northwestern Pacific Railroad. Across the Napa River, the right of way is owned by Union Pacific Railroad, with California Northern Railroad conducting freight operations. SMART will have to negotiate rights of usage with these entities. Gamlen said the parties involved have met, but no deal points have been presented.

A funding commitment is needed to make all of this happen. According to Gamlen, so far no one is talking about how to pay for it. Unlike the quarter cent sales tax increase passed in 2008 to fund SMART in Sonoma and Marin counties, no similar taxing mechanism is in place within Napa and Solano counties to fund SMART operations. Without this, funding from state, federal and other sources would be needed for construction.

'We want to finish going north before going east," said Debora Fudge, SMART board member and vice mayor of Windsor. "We are studying going east only because the state asked us to — and gave us the money to do it.'

The purpose of the east-west SMART study was to examine the technical feasibility of implementing passenger rail service between Novato's existing Hamilton Station and Suisun City-Fairfield, where the proposed new passenger rail line would connect to Amtrak's Capital Corridor. That would provide access to Sacramento and other destinations, from Auburn to San Jose.

The review process documented the existing physical condition of the corridor, identified proposed limited infrastructure options and challenges leading to project schedules and cost estimates. The study concluded that this extension is definitely feasible and offered two optional scenarios for consideration.

Gamlen said next steps will be to evaluate the operating plan and refine the scope of the project, while also exploring station locations in cooperation with stakeholders such as Solano, Napa Sonoma and Marin County transportation agencies as well as affected cities and counties.

Shared track and corridor opportunities must also be investigated in collaboration with track owners. Preliminary engineering documents must also be prepared as well as an environmental report – which could take one to two years depending on whether option 1 or option 2 is selected.

Option 1 would maximize the re-use of existing infrastructure, stay within the existing rail embankment, replace the Black Point bridge over the Petaluma River with a used bridge (that Gamlen says has already been identified) while keeping the Napa River vertical lift bridge, and replace 28 existing timber bridges. Both options would utilize three signal systems: grade crossing, wayside and positive train control.

Option 1 would also require three new intermediate stations, including one in the Highway 121/37 area, one in the Napa-American Canyon area and another at the shared existing Capital Corridor joint powers authority (CCJPA) Suisun City-Fairfield station.

This option would include a shared maintenance facility, shared or contracted corridor maintenance, and a shared corridor with freight and new connections to SMART and the Capital Corridor.

With Option 2, the existing infrastructure would be reconstructed, including the replacement of Black Point Bridge and 28 existing timber bridges.

Rolling stock for Option 2 would include six new tier-4 compliant locomotives or diesel multiple units (DMUs), 12 new high-platform coaches, and six new cab coaches – or 12 new units, including two spares.

Gamlen said the proposed transportation infrastructure described in the feasibility study can be built upon for decades to come, and both options have scalability to increase service with the addition of train cars.

'We are certain about the book-end stations in Novato and Suisun City, but there could be different stops in between. This is our first look at alternatives for this project. We want to spend money wisely by finding economical and efficient ways to improve regional transportation. The goal is to not just invest in an option, but in transportation connectivity in Northern California,' Gamlen said.

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