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With the announcement last month that the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) board authorized $24 million toward extending its north-south passenger rail system from Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport to Windsor by 2021 or 2022, many are wondering why it may take three years to see this relatively short 3.5-mile segment become a reality.

And officials themselves say they are facing uncertainty, despite the approval. California voters on Nov. 6 are being asked whether to repeal portion of the state gas tax, which could result in loss of funds for the Windsor extension.

Nonetheless, SMART officials say they continue to plan, not only for the airport to Windsor link, but farther into the future, extending the line further north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale and eventually Ukiah. There are also longer term proposals for a rail link east from Novato to Suisun City, Cordelia and Fairfield to connect with the Solano Hub and the Amtrak Capitol Corridor rail line.

Windsor project details

“Several things must take place before any major SMART project can begin,” said Debora Fudge, chairwoman of the SMART board of directors and a member of the Windsor Town Council. “We have set a timetable for the Windsor segment with initial preconstruction tasks to commence this fall, followed by heavy construction in 2020, testing in 2021 and passenger service starting in late 2021 or early 2022 — perhaps, even sooner — if all goes as planned.”

She said the front end of this process involves issuing contracts to WRA, Inc., providing plant, wildlife, wetland ecology and environmental planning consulting services; Stantec, Inc., of Edmonton, Canada, with five offices in Northern California, providing industrial design and engineering services; and RailPros, Inc., of Redcliff, Canada, an engineering and planning firm providing field design and project construction management services, with offices in Oakland and Los Angeles. These contracts, plus one more, total $15.7 million authorized on Sept. 19.

The consulting firms will focus on preparing engineering land surveys, soil analyses, wildlife habitat and tree studies, etc., that must be done in advance of obtaining environmental permits in advance of construction.

“Signal work must be done before design and build contracts can be issued, and we have to reconstruct the tracks, rebuild the rail bed and old trestles," Fudge said. "We plan to use Modern Railway Systems (MRS) again to build train and station communications and grade crossing control systems. This is the same contractor currently engaged in similar work for SMART’s Larkspur extension in Marin County from San Rafael to the ferry terminal.”

The 2.1-mile, $55.4 million Larkspur section should be completed by the end of 2019, in time for Modern Railway Systems to engage in the Windsor project.

The SMART board’s decision authorized $24 million toward the total estimated $55 million cost of the Windsor segment. Of this total, $20 million would come from the state’s SB1 gas tax revenues, with another $30 million from Regional Measure 3 to be collected through Bay Area bridge toll increases approved by voters last June. In addition, a $5 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration is earmarked to implement the accident-avoidance system, positive train control.

If the $55 million projected cost to expand SMART to Windsor holds firm, Fudge said there will be some funds left over to pay for a few extras, such as starting to plan for extending the system to Healdsburg. However, she cautioned, “You never know what a project will actually cost until you start construction.”

A traffic roundabout in the intersection of Windsor River Road and Windsor Road, adjacent to Windsor’s train station, is still on the drawing board. It includes laying track through the circle, as has already been done in Healdsburg.

“We are studying that now, so we aren’t ready to provide dates yet," Fudge said. "Our goal is to complete work on this intersection before start of train service.”

Beyond Windsor to Cloverdale and Sonoma

According to Fudge, SMART wants to go north as quickly as possible.

“Future expansion to Cloverdale is the first priority before an eastern link to Solano County will be considered," she said. "All of this depends on available funding.”

California has included SMART in its overall rail plan. The eastern corridor could start from Novato at Highway 37 north to Sears Point and use an existing right-of-way through Sonoma, Napa, to Suisun City, and Cordelia Junction to connect with the Amtrak Capitol Corridor rail system, is still a possibility, but planners say this link would not be a reality Northern California before 2040.

“Expanding SMART to the East Bay is still very much in study stages, and would likely follow existing trackage. To go east, SMART does not have to cross the bay," Fudge said. "It would cross the Napa River and there is a bridge there already, but we don’t know its condition as yet.

“The state’s Transportation Department has authorized SMART to spend up to $500,000 to do a feasibility study on extending our tracks to the East Bay. This is only a very preliminary study and will not sacrifice our original North-South plan. Hopefully, more funding will be available from the state to finish the extension through Cloverdale before 2027.”

Fudge hopes that the use of the state’s existing surplus of almost $9 billion will be shifted to pay for regional and local transit — and said people at the state capital are looking at a possible ways to make this possible, but provided no further details.

She added that from the outset, SMART planned to create a passenger rail multi-city corridor as a spine for a larger interconnected Northern California Mega Network, according to the 2018 California State Rail Plan. Fudge said the state is doing more forward thinking now about how rail can be such an alternative to car travel, not just here in the North and perhaps to the East, but also in the South from San Francisco to San Jose and Santa Cruz as part of a coastal rail access plan.

According to SMART spokeswoman Jeanne Belding, since the start of passenger service in Aug. 25, 2017, SMART has carried more than 800,000 passengers and over 77,000 bikes and expects to approach the million-passenger mark soon.