California Supreme Court decision unleashes $40 million funding stream for SMART’s long-delayed march northward
A California Supreme Court ruling has breathed life into the North Bay passenger rail system’s long-delayed march north to Windsor and Healdsburg.
In a unanimous decision Wednesday, Jan. 25, the court’s seven justices cleared the way for the increased tolls Bay Area commuters have paid since 2019 to flow out of an escrow account and toward transportation projects, which will allow long-planned expansions of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system to move forward.
The decision effectively ends a tax advocacy group’s yearslong appeal of a 2018 ballot measure passed by 55% of Bay Area voters. It will ultimately unleash $4.45 billion in regional funding, including $40 million for the SMART expansion.
SMART’s passenger line today ends near the Sonoma County airport north of Santa Rosa. Since 2020, the Howard Jarvis Tax Association’s lawsuit has stalled construction of a 3-mile segment to a waiting station in Windsor.
The tax association sued the Bay Area Toll Authority, arguing the toll increases constituted an illegally passed tax that should have required approval from two-thirds of voters.
The group lost in two lower courts, but the California Supreme Court agreed in April 2021 to take up the case. SMART paused its building to await the high court’s decision, while at the same time pursuing replacement funding from a wide range of state and federal sources.
“It’s fantastic news,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves as the chair of SMART’s board of directors and also oversees a number of regional transportation initiatives that stand to advance infrastructure goals through the toll funds.
The money “has been a long time coming and seemingly languished forever,” he said.
Tim Bittle, the tax association’s chief counsel, told The Press Democrat the decision was “expected,” following the justices’ August ruling in a related case over fees Oakland charged waste haulers for use of public streets. The court in that case stated that while governments did not have the right to charge for the use of public streets, it did have the right to raise tolls on bridges, showing justices’ intentions on the toll measure, he said.
The court’s decision ended the legal bid to overturn the tolling measure, Bittle said. “The California Supreme Court was the court of last resort,” he said.
SMART is waiting on several other grant applications, general manager Eddy Cumins said in a news release. If successful, they anticipate completing the extension to Windsor sometime in 2025 or 2026 and to Healdsburg within a year after that, he said.
“Our continued efforts to secure funding to complete the rail line and multi-use pathway have positioned us to not only complete construction to Windsor but also potentially build out to Healdsburg,” Cumins said.
Local business owners and town officials have long awaited the train expansion, Windsor Mayor Rosa Reynoza said Thursday.
“We’re hoping it will improve some foot traffic for our downtown,” Reynoza told The Press Democrat. “I’m just excited in general to see the hopefully positive effects, whether its people who want to use it to go to work or students who ride the bus now.”
Regional transportation officials celebrated the court ruling, which came quicker than some expected.
“It’s great news to have this resolved in a positive manner,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “As transportation sector folks we’ve been eager to know one way or another so we can proceed accordingly. Now we know and we’re excited to get going and put the dollars to work to benefit travelers in the region.”
SMART officials’ most recent estimates for the expansion indicate laying new track to Windsor will cost $70 million, of which $35 million was funded outside the toll funds. They estimate construction farther north, from Windsor to Healdsburg, at around $160 million, including for the construction of a pedestrian and cyclist pathway parallel to the rail line.
That latter project includes a new railroad bridge over the Russian River, which SMART hopes to build sometime in the next two years.
While SMART funding is the most significant Sonoma County development out of the court case’s conclusion, the decision carries broader ramifications for travel to and from the North Bay.
As presented on the ballot in 2018, the toll measures are supposed to generate $120 million for the Sonoma-Marin Narrows widening project on Highway 101.
Work on that project was already nearing completion toward the end of last year.
The toll funding includes $100 million to relieve traffic congestion along Highway 37 and protect that roadway from future flooding. While impressive, the toll dollars are a fraction of the $4 billion that experts estimate is needed to bulwark Highway 37 from global warming’s rising seas. The highway, 9 miles of which run through Sonoma County, is one of the lowest-lying stretches of roadway in the state.
It’s been five years since the ballot measure was designed. Cost estimates and funding priorities alike have shifted over that time, which includes inflation, interest rates rise and the COVID-19 pandemic’s dramatic and in some cases lasting impacts on public transit use and commuter patterns.
Now that the court has ruled, “I think there’s going to be a lot of coming back up to speed (by transportation officials) about how have priorities shifted and how does the Metropolitan Transportation Committee roll out the revenue they’ve collected already,” Smith said.
Rabbitt agreed, but noted the underlying need for construction, driven by climate change and aging infrastructure, is not going away.
“We’re betting on the future because to do otherwise is kind of throwing up your hands,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88