When voters in Sonoma and Marin counties passed a sales tax measure in 2008 to fund a commuter rail system, they were told trains would be running between Cloverdale and Larkspur in 2014.
But almost immediately, the recession hit and sales tax revenues began to sag. Retrenching, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority announced three years ago that it was being forced to scale back the line to a less ambitious Santa Rosa-San Rafael segment.
Now, as the rail project emerges from dark days, officials are leveraging a rebound in sales tax revenues to capture regional, state and federal money to add important pieces to that initial segment.
But not all the news is good. Late last week SMART general manager Farhad Mansourian disclosed that it likely will be three years until rail service is launched. That's the second significant delay for the commute line, which most recently had been expected to begin serving customers early in 2016.
"Our goal is to make sure we are up and running by Christmas 2016," Mansourian said. "If it's the first half of 2016, I'm going to surprise everyone, but I don't want to get pinned down to that simply because there are many moving wheels."
He cited a complicated regulatory process, including obtaining permits to work on track in the wetlands, for delaying the project.
"There are 15 state, regional and federal agencies that control many things that we do. We are operating a train that does not exist. We are building it from scratch," Mansourian said.
With the addition to the project last week of a station near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, and funding for the 2-mile San Rafael-to-Larkspur segment underway, it is likely that two regional transportation hubs will book-end the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system when the first commuter trains start rolling.
That's a big deal, rail officials say. The prospect of linking SMART rail with other transportation nodes has allowed officials to access regional, state and federal funding to help complete the project.
In the not-too-distant future, SMART officials hope travel in Sonoma County could look like this:
A Cotati resident boards a SMART train at the depot near her house. About 20 minutes, a latte and a crossword puzzle later, she arrives at the Airport Boulevard station. There, a shuttle bus whisks her the last mile to the airport terminal, where she catches a direct flight to Denver and makes her connection to the East Coast.
On the same day, a Petaluma man walks a few blocks to the Lakeville Street station and jumps on a SMART train heading south. He arrives at the Larkspur ferry terminal 20 minutes later, just in time to make the half-hour Golden Gate Ferry ride to San Francisco.
From the Ferry Building, he is blocks away from a BART station with service to San Francisco and Oakland airports, or the Transbay Transit Center, terminus of the future high-speed train to Los Angeles.
Mansourian said that outside funding agencies, such as the Federal Transit Administration, like the fact that the commuter rail line is planned to go to the airport and the ferry terminal.
As the economy inches toward recovery, revenues from the 20-year Measure Q quarter-percent sales tax continue to rebound. The Measure Q fund experienced a 10 percent increase in the year ending June 30, according to the authority's latest financial report. General revenues, which are mostly sales tax receipts, are currently at $32 million a year.