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SMART seeks new federal funds to extend commuter rail to north Sonoma County, east to Solano County

North Bay commuter rail officials confirmed they are pursuing new federal infrastructure funds to help speed the delayed northward extension of SMART in Sonoma County as well as an east-west route linking Marin and Solano counties along Highway 37.

The funds are available through the Federal Rail Administration and were allocated as part of the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure law last year. The bill has bolstered the rail agency’s Corridor Identification and Development grant program.

“We’ll be pursuing it,” said Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit spokesman Matt Stevens. “We believe this offers specific funding opportunities that fit our north- and east-(bound) route extensions.”

SMART has to meet eligibility requirements first. Then it will have to decide how much to apply for.

SMART’s $65 million expansion to Windsor, delayed by years now, is about 30% complete, with progress hampered by court fights related to bridge fee revenue and rail rights of way.

The current 45-mile north-south line runs roughly parallel to Highway 101 from Larkspur to near the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport. Eventually, the route is set to have its northern terminus at Cloverdale, though SMART officials have been wary of estimating when that might happen.

The Windsor-to-Healdsburg section is estimated to cost $125 million, and the Healdsburg-to-Cloverdale line will run about $170 million. Plus, another $44 million is needed to buy additional train cars, according to SMART officials. It’s undetermined at this point how many cars are required.

The federal grant funding would speed rollout of passenger service by offering a new pool of money for construction, according to SMART officials.

SMART is reporting its best ridership levels since the pandemic shutdowns in early 2020, and transit officials remain bullish on the outlook for rail commuting despite significant changes in work-week traffic patterns spurred by the pandemic.

In SMART’s case, that also means looking east, and to a state rail plan that envisions passenger service tying Marin and Solano counties to the busy Capital Corridor line serving Sacramento and the East Bay.

Two of the main thoroughfares linking the North Bay and East Bay, Highway 37 and Interstate 80 are notoriously traffic clogged.

SMART and Solano County officials have estimated a Marin-to-Solano link amounting to 41 miles would cost $780 million to $1.3 billion, accounting for difference in equipment and design work necessary to accommodate faster trains.

For comparison, SMART’s main line has cost more than $653 million to develop so far.

The state’s 2022 rail plan envisioned passenger service linking Marin to Solano counties as early as 2032.

That said, California Department of Transportation is juggling 139 rail projects, Caltrans spokesman Will Arnold noted.

The Marin-Solano route calls for seven rail stations, with the Suisun-Fairfield Amtrak Station serving as a key connection 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.

SMART officials have stressed that the northward extension remains the agency’s main priority. The plan to eventually expand operations with an east-west route remains sound, officials said, despite the state’s stumbles with its high speed rail project and the ongoing shift to remote work.

Train travel is still ideal for commuters seeking mass transit options, Stevens said. And SMART is an established rail service in comparison to the proposed California High Speed Rail, a publicly-funded rapid rail transit system proposed to connect Northern and Southern California travelers along the spine of the state.

In his May 18 report to SMART’s board of directors, General Manager Eddy Cumins said ridership reached 1,608 on May 12 and tied the post-pandemic high mark five days later. The average weekday ridership during the pandemic totals 1,450, about half of what it was before March 2020.

Still, Cumins said he was encouraged by the steady climb in ridership. SMART has reintroduced weekend service suspended during the earliest stages of the pandemic and is set to expand weekday service by 10 trips beginning June 13.

“We’re trending in the right direction, and we’re hopeful this trend will continue over time,” he told the SMART board.

SMART last year also was seeking $12.8 million in federal funding, included around $2.3 million in grants for building pathways, $7.5 million in stimulus spending from the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed in March and $3 million in maintenance funds.

Those funds were tied up in a federal Department of Labor fight with California over its decade-old reform of public employee pensions. Cumins said that however this fight will not affect funding for its planned extensions. The legal issue as it pertains to SMART has been resolved, according to a Department of Labor letter, and SMART has now received the funding in question.

Increased ridership will play a key factor in whether SMART officials are able to obtain the Federal Rail Administration grants for the north- and eastward expansions.

John Goodwin of the MTC has indicated his agency is supportive of the SMART Highway 37 corridor project because it would “create options where none existed” on a west-to-east thoroughfare that’s heavily traveled and backed up with motorists at any given time during the day.

The MTC coordinates transit funding and planning for the nine-county Bay Area.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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