Bicycle riders have been some of the staunchest supporters of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit's plan to build a rail line from Larkspur to Cloverdale.

Promised a 70-mile network of bicycle paths alongside that rail, bicyclists were a key reason the 2008 sales tax measure for the project won nearly 70 percent of the vote in Sonoma County.

Five years later, that dream remains a distant one, forced to take a backseat to the top priority of getting commuter service up and running from Santa Rosa to San Rafael in the face of soaring costs.

But not far from downtown Santa Rosa, there is a stretch of new asphalt running from just north of Railroad Square that gives a glimpse of what the backers of Measure Q promised – a dedicated bike and pedestrian path running alongside a brand new rail line.

"Finally, it's not a fantasy," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. "Ride that little section and imagine what it'll be like if that ran all the way to Larkspur."

The third-of-a-mile long path runs from 8th Street near Western Farm Center to West College Avenue, where a signal will allow bicyclists to cross the busy street safely. While the path doesn't continue further north yet, there are county plans to continue it to Guerneville Road next year, Helfrich said.

And while West College Avenue doesn't have any bike lanes yet, a plan to widen College Avenue under Highway 101 with bicycle lanes isn't far off.

Though he's been very frustrated with SMART's failure to prioritize the path to date, Helfrich said Santa Rosa deserves a lot of credit for stepping up and finding the federal funding needed to get this section constructed.

"Hats off to the Santa Rosa Public Works Department," Helfrich said. "There should be a shout out to those guys."

Called the SMART Multi-Use Path, the project began in November of 2012 but was almost immediately suspended when more contaminated soils than expected were discovered during excavation.

The city had to kick in an additional $270,000 earlier this year to pay for the additional soil disposal costs, bringing the total cost to $1.1 million. Since then, the project has been chugging away. North West General Engineering returned to the work in September, and a month later work is nearly complete. The signal at West College went in last week and electrical work, testing, and signage should be done in a few weeks, said Greg Dwyer, a civil engineer in the public works department.

The path terminates on the south end at 8th Street because the federal grant the city won couldn't be used to acquire the right-of-way necessary to continue it to the future station, said Rick Moshier, director of the Transportation and Public Works Department.

"It's going to have to get built in segments," Moshier said.

Helfrich said he hopes in the future SMART will work better with the numerous local agencies with which it has to partner to get the path completed.

"People didn't vote for the path. They didn't vote for the train. They voted for the SMART project. They voted for the whole thing," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@citybeater)