The first SMART commuter train probably won't make the 37-mile trip between Santa Rosa and San Rafael until at least 2015, a journey far shorter and later than originally planned.
But Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit appears to be gathering momentum despite the delay and despite continuing criticism the train is a boondoggle in the making.
On Wednesday, SMART's board of director's unanimously approved a $400 million financial plan that should allow the district to receive $23 million in funding from the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission in September.
That money in turn sets the stage for SMART to go to the financial market in October to sell up to $171 million in bonds approved by Marin and Sonoma county voters in 2008.
Together, the revenue puts SMART in a position to start moving more quickly, said Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the SMART board and a Sonoma County Supervisor.
"Today was pretty momentous," she said.
SMART had been set to get similar funding from the MTC in July, but the commission held off in light of questions about new cost and revenue estimates developed this summer by rail agency staff.
SMART originally was planned to open in 2014 with service from Larkspur to Cloverdale, a distance of 70 miles. But declining sales tax revenues and a weak bond financing market prompted the agency to announce it would open the line in stages, starting with the 37-mile stretch from San Rafael to Santa Rosa.
That first phase is now expected to cost $360 million, an increase of $25 million.
Such tinkerings to the cost and scope of the project have ignited opposition to the train system. Detractors showed up in force Wednesday to raise concerns about what they see as a wasteful, ill-conceived rail pan.
The board's support is based on overly rosy numbers, incomplete accounting and false election promises, they said.
"We've being forced to ask these questions because they just keep going forward," said John Parnell, founder of Repeal SMART. The group is trying to qualify a ballot initiative that would repeal the quarter-percent sales tax increase approved by voters in the two counties to fund the commute rail.
Opponents, however, appeared outnumbered Wednesday by supporters who celebrated SMART's promise of an environmental alternative to Highway 101 that would provide hundreds of jobs to the area and prepare the North Bay for life beyond cars.
"It is a bargain and it is a necessity," said Shirlee Zane, SMART board member and Sonoma County Supervisor, who was echoing the day's proponents.
However, fans of the train will have to wait for the system to start rolling, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART's interim executive director.
He repeated Wednesday that a gauntlet of government review agencies need to approve environmentally sensitive wetlands construction, which could mean up to a two-year delay in operation.
Brown said the board was forming an ad hoc committee to explore using shuttles to fill in the gaps of the train line until the full Larkspur-Cloverdale route can be finished.
The board later convened in closed session to discuss hiring a new general manager.
The district has been negotiating a contract with the board's top choice, who has not been identified. Brown said the board would continue the discussion Monday at a meeting in Santa Rosa, which would largely be behind closed doors.