SMART delays completion of $65 million Windsor extension to 2022
SMART has pushed back completion of its $65 million extension to Windsor to 2022, announcing Wednesday that the rail agency has run into a major funding shortfall that is poised to postpone launch of its passenger service north of Santa Rosa at least into next year.
“The project is essentially out of money for the time being. Our timeline is kind of on hold, because it is funding dependent,” Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer, told SMART’s 12-member board at its bimonthly meeting.
Work on the 3-mile construction project — Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s first northern extension — got underway in January 2020, and was expected to take about two years. Once it is finished, SMART commuter service will run along 48 miles from Larkspur to Windsor, reaching nearly 70% of the originally planned 70-mile line from Marin County’s southern edge to near Sonoma County’s northern border in Cloverdale.
Upgrades on the stretch of rail line running to Windsor and a federally mandated train signaling system are fully funded through a mix of state and federal grants totaling $30 million, plus $40 million dedicated to the project from regional bridge toll increases. But proceeds from three scheduled $1 toll hikes through 2025 have been held up in a lengthy legal battle over Regional Measure 3, which Bay Area voters approved in June 2018. The case, brought by Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is up on appeal before California’s Supreme Court.
“Not many really foresaw the RM3 funds would be tied up for as long as they have or the fact that they would go to the state Supreme Court,” Supervisor David Rabbitt, chair of the SMART board, said Wednesday. “The lower court rulings were … relatively definitive. But here we are, and that’s the schedule that we have.”
The lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and its bridge collection arm, the Bay Area Toll Authority, argues that the toll increases on the region’s seven state-owned bridges represent a tax rather than a fee. A Superior Court judge and a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeals, both in San Francisco, each previously ruled against the suit ahead of the state Supreme Court decision in October to hear the case. A ruling is not expected for at least several more months, according to a MTC spokesman.
If the state’s highest court were to rule in favor of the taxpayer watchdog group, it would nullify the bridge toll hikes, which passed with 55% voter support. California law requires a two-thirds majority approval, or nearly 67%, for new taxes with designated purposes.
The bridge toll measure is intended to generate $4.5 billion over a 20-year period to fund a long list of road and transit upgrades across the Bay Area, including SMART’s Windsor extension. Other North Bay transportation projects with tens of millions of dollars at stake include the Highway 101 Sonoma-Marin Narrows lane-widening ($120 million) and improvements along Highway 37 ($100 million).
SMART has all but exhausted the $30 million it had on hand for the Windsor extension. The $40 million from the bridge toll revenues remains off limits pending a resolution of the court case in its favor.
The delayed launch in Windsor represents the latest setback for the North Bay’s passenger rail system. The massive public works project, presently with a cost of $653 million, won approval in 2008, when almost 70% of voters in the two counties backed a quarter-cent sales tax for 20 years to fund the region’s first passenger trains since the 1960s.
But almost immediately, SMART faced significant funding gaps, which agency officials attributed to financial fallout from the Great Recession. Critics, though, say it was the result of rosy revenue projections and underestimated construction costs.
SMART opted to phase the 70-mile project, which delayed its launch of service to August 2017, beginning along a truncated 43-mile line, from San Rafael to north of Santa Rosa. A parallel paved bicycle-and-pedestrian pathway also promised to voters in the 2008 measure today sits only about a third complete.
In December 2019, SMART finished its first extension, a 2-mile stretch of brand new rail line from San Rafael to the system’s southern terminus in Larkspur at a cost of $55.4 million. At roughly the same time, the agency opened a third station in Novato — a $7 million platform in the city’s downtown not included in SMART’s original plan.
The expansion into Windsor, which Gamlen said stands at about 30% complete ahead of the traditional winter construction hiatus, marks the agency’s move into northern Sonoma County. SMART was aiming to reach Windsor by late 2021 and beyond that, begin work on its $194 million, 5-mile extension to Healdsburg, which agency officials had hoped last year to reach by 2024.
That target date, however, was contingent upon an additional state grant award and passage of a sales tax renewal in March. SMART failed to secure that competitive grant funding and voters rejected the 30-year tax extension. The agency has declined to offer a new date for the Healdsburg extension, nor the 17 miles beyond it to Cloverdale, which has a $170 million price tag.
SMART plans to provide updates on its future capital projects in April, including how and when it might finish the extension to Windsor.
“We took an aggressive approach on getting to Windsor. (It) always depended on the RM3 funds,” Rabbitt said Wednesday. “Actually, the timing — the winterization when work would slow down anyway — I believe, won’t set us back all that far. But, of course, we want to be aggressive at all times going forward and we usually are.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.