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Work on a commuter rail system through Sonoma and Marin counties will begin Tuesday, nearly four years after voters approved a ballot measure to help fund the project and despite current efforts to derail it.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Board of Directors Monday voted unanimously to approve a $103.3 million contract with Alameda-based Stacy and Witbeck Inc. and Herzog Contracting Corp. to build the first phase of the rail project.

George Furnanz, chief operating officer of Stacy and Witbeck, said the project initially will create 1,000 jobs. Furnanz said he could not say how many of those hires will be from the North Bay, despite assurances from SMART officials at a press conference last Thursday that project managers would have that information.

"It's tough to do," Furnanz said of such estimates.

He said project managers will track those numbers "as we go."

He said crews on Tuesday will begin laying out the work to be completed, putting up fencing around wetland areas and ordering materials. About a dozen subcontractors who attended Monday's meeting in Santa Rosa were greeted with applause after Furnanz asked them to stand.

"It is a blessing to watch our local folks stand behind you," said Sonoma County supervisor and SMART chairwoman Valerie Brown.

Board members also were effusive in their praise of SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian, who they credited with striking the deal to get the project rolling after only five months at the helm.

The contract encompasses 38.5 miles of track from Santa Rosa to the Marin Civic Center, and will include two stations that were not originally planned for the initial phase: one at Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa, and another at Atherton Avenue in northern Novato.

"We are just so delighted at the turn of events that has allowed for a Guerneville Road station," Santa Rosa City Manager Kathleen Millison told the board Monday.

The SMART board also approved a study of the relocation of the proposed Rohnert Park station from Roberts Lake Road to Rohnert Park Expressway. The Rohnert Park City Council in April recommended the move and promised $35,000 to reimburse SMART for the environmental review.

Plans to award a second contract for the rail line between the Marin Civic Center and downtown San Rafael are on hold pending an effort to repeal Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved in 2008 to help fund SMART.

RepealSMART has been gathering signatures in an attempt to qualify the ballot measure by the Jan. 27 deadline.

But how many signatures are needed and the wording of the petitions are contested issues that may have to be resolved in court. In the meantime, both sides are attempting to influence public opinion, with SMART officials accusing repeal advocates of wanting to kill jobs, and critics accusing rail officials of spending money unwisely.

Santa Rosa resident Rich Harkness noted the cuts occurring in state parks, social services and other programs, before asking the board: "Is SMART a more important use of tax dollars than all of those other things?"

But Mansourian again predicted that the repeal effort will fail, and that when it does, SMART will be able to seek bids for the rail segment between Marin Civic Center and downtown San Rafael.

The rail district has placed the $171 million in proceeds from the Dec. 20 sale of construction bonds into an escrow account pending the outcome of the repeal effort.