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With construction crews finishing track replacement work through Santa Rosa this month, officials at Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit are starting to plan for the final stages of the $360 million project that will link Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

So far, about 15 miles of track have been completed in Sonoma County, along with the repair or replacement of 25 road crossings and six bridges, work that was part of a $105 million package of contracts now nearing completion.

Next, SMART plans to award up to $80 million in new contracts this spring, primarily to finish the southern end, from the Marin Civic Center to downtown San Rafael, but also to complete work in Sonoma County.

"The project is on schedule and on track," spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening said this week.

The 39-mile commuter rail line is scheduled to begin operating late in 2015 or early 2016. The first train cars, under construction in Illinois, will be delivered early next year, enabling test trips on the new tracks.

Construction is under way as well at stations in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati. The new round of contracts will include building a new operations and maintenance facility in the north end of Santa Rosa.

Much of the work on the project involves tearing up and replacing old tracks. SMART officials say the new track will be less noisy and more environmentally friendly than traditional railroads. The noise will be reduced by using quarter-mile-long steel rails, meaning fewer joints to clatter under the wheels. Environmental damage will be reduced by replacing the traditional ties and road crossings, made of creosote-soaked wood, with concrete and steel.

The SMART project was largely funded by a 2008 ballot measure that imposed a one-quarter percent sales tax, approved by voters in the two counties. It has attracted a number of smaller state and federal grants as well, such as $9 million in federal funding to improve road crossings and another $19 million federal grant to add more rail cars and extend the line north of Guerneville Road to Airport Boulevard, where the new operation and maintenance yard will be.

"I would say from Sonoma County's point of view, we're seeing evidence that the sales tax money is being put to good use," said SMART board member Jake Mackenzie, also a city council member in Rohnert Park.

In his own city, officials are hoping construction of the rail station will spur new interest in the vacant downtown property formerly occupied by State Farm Insurance.

"It's a good project," Mackenzie said.

Not everyone is as pleased with the rail system. In 2011, critics tried unsuccessfully to repeal the sales tax measure after SMART leaders said they could only pay for 39 miles of track, instead of the originally-planned 70 miles, in the face of rising costs and declining sales taxes. Officials still hope to build the full 70-mile project, which would have stretched from Cloverdale to Larkspur, but there is no funding available and no specific plans for when and how to finish it.

"If they try to come back to ask for another sales tax, there is going to be a huge fight," said Clay Mitchell, one of the repeal organizers and now a director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers' Association, where he monitors SMART spending.

Mitchell said he is worried that SMART is using overly optimistic projections of construction costs and possible savings measures. He fears there might not be enough to complete even the shortened 39-mile project, which SMART calls Phase I, he said.

"We feel like the numbers they are giving to the public are stretching the truth at best," he said.

SMART officials, however, say the financial picture is in fact getting better. Sales tax revenues, which sagged during the economic downturn, have rebounded. In 2012, SMART received $28.3 million in sales taxes, up $1.5 million, or about 5 percent, from the previous year. In just the first four months of the current fiscal year, the agency got about $10 million, suggesting an even stronger financial performance this year.

Glendening said critics of the agency have not been able to throw up any major roadblocks.

"People still have opinions about the project," she said, "but it was approved by the voters and our mandate is to get it built."

There have been some challenges and complaints about the project, but those have largely been local in nature. There have been legal disputes over acquiring small plots of private land to change road and driveway crossings, for example, and residents of Novato complained recently that SMART's construction crews had cleared trees without notifying neighbors. General Manager Farhad Mansourian admitted to the board earlier this year that the agency had done a poor job communicating with the Novato neighbors and promised to do better in the future.

The system has a number of major projects still ahead of it, including the replacement of the aging bridge over the Petaluma River. Rather than rehab the existing bridge, which is more than 90 years old, SMART chose to buy an existing bridge across Galveston Bay in Texas, which was being replaced at the orders of the Coast Guard.

The bridge was cut into pieces and shipped by rail to Napa last summer, where it is being stored. It probably will be reassembled there and floated by barge to the bridge site, though SMART has yet to pick a contractor for the work, so some details remain uncertain.

The replacement bridge cost about $4 million and will take about $16 million to install. Rehabbing the old bridge would have cost at least that much and would probably have added only about 20 years of life, Chief Engineer Bill Gamlen said, making it more cost effective to buy the Texas bridge, which is only about 30 years old and is expected to last at least another 85 years.

"We looked at doing a very serious rehab" to the old bridge, he said, "but it looked like throwing good money after bad."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.