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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.

"We have really leveraged the Measure Q money with outside money," Mansourian said. "In this year alone, we have brought in over $40 million of outside money. That's what it takes to get to Cloverdale. That's what it takes to get to Larkspur."

But the rosier financial climate also means that construction costs are increasing. The original estimate for the first segment, $360 million, is inadequate, Mansourian said, though he would not say by how much. He plans to present the total cost of completion to the board in two months.

The operating cost also is likely to be higher than the $19 million estimate, Mansourian said without getting specific.

"That was the original number," he said. "The world has changed. But as expense goes up, our revenues go up."

The rising cost of the project continues to rile SMART opponents who fought the sales tax measure and later tried unsuccessfully to get it repealed.

"The current SMART Board, just like its predecessors, continues to perpetuate the financial myth that SMART has sufficient revenues to construct and operate the train service they've promised through 2029," said Novato economist Mike Arnold, a longtime SMART opponent. "Revenues from a quarter-cent sales tax have not, are not and will not be sufficient to construct and operate the promised service over that period."

Arnold also warned that another recession is likely to hit before the sales tax measure expires.

Mansourian said he may have word on funding for the Larkspur extension by spring. That part of the project is on a short list for federal money. There could be state and regional funding too, he said.

Track has been rebuilt from Santa Rosa to Petaluma, and in 2014 most of the track shifts to Marin County.

The construction has progressed relatively quickly. Crews recently took just 10 days to replace the 115-year-old Cinnabar Bridge over the Petaluma River, work that could have taken months.

The trains, which are being put together in Illinois, are scheduled to be delivered late next year, followed by testing. The trains will reach a top speed of 79 miles per hour, and a trip from Santa Rosa to San Rafael should take under an hour, according to SMART.

The agency intends to run trains every half hour during peak commute times with a mid-day train and weekend service. The rail authority estimates 5,000 riders a day will use the service.

"We will go from Airport Boulevard to, let's say, Larkspur. We're going to get you there in 50 minutes or you're going to be in your car for an hour and 30 minutes. Are you going to ride it? That's the ridership estimate," Mansourian said.

As construction on the initial segment of track continues, Mansourian said he and board members are looking for funding to extend the line north to Cloverdale.

Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale could benefit from tourists riding the weekend train, officials say. Initially, a bus service will connect those cities to the start of the rail line.

"The board direction to staff has always been Cloverdale to Larkspur," Mansourian said. "They never settled for less. For financial reasons, the board had to strategize and come up with construction phases because we just came out of one of the worst economic times in many generations. So we as a staff never forgot that the demand from the board was and is Cloverdale to Larkspur."

Statements like that are not lost on officials in cities north of the current terminus. Windsor council woman Deb Fudge, a SMART board member, said residents of Ukiah and Willits have asked about extending rail service to Mendocino County.

But the board's first priority is to complete the line through Sonoma County, she said.

"The SMART board is extremely determined to finish the line all the way to Cloverdale," she said. "We're already two stops beyond where we said we'd be<NO1><NO>. That bodes extremely well for extending the train north."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)

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