Sonoma-Marin commuter rail plan chugs along toward 2016 start

  • Farhad Mansourian, general manager of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), near the Adobe Lumber/Lagunitas Spur that serves local industry, freight and eventually passenger trains in Petaluma, Calif., on December 19, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

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:

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