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The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency has secured federal environmental clearance for 36 miles of a bicycle and pedestrian path to be built along the tracks where commuter trains are set to begin running later this year, a decision rail officials trumpet as a breakthrough in the long-stalled pathway project.

Officials said the go-ahead means that 6.2 miles of previously approved pathway construction can get underway in the two counties, including segments in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. More broadly, the designation potentially frees up millions of dollars in federal funding SMART can seek to use for building more of the path.

“This is the fruit of three very hard years of work,” Farhad Mansourian, the rail agency’s general manager, said Friday. He said the federal approval will “dramatically” speed up the process of building the path.

Critics have accused SMART of dragging its feet on construction of the pathway, which was a critical selling point for a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2008 to pay for commuter rail. Just under 10 miles of pathway has been completed or are in the final stages of being finished, leaving long gaps along the 43-mile rail line comprising the first phase of commuter rail from San Rafael to north Santa Rosa.

But at least now, SMART can’t claim that the federal environmental review is holding up the pathway project, said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

“The one obstacle SMART said was in their way of building the trail has now been removed,” he said.

The environmental review encompassed 36 miles of proposed pathway running from SMART’s downtown San Rafael station to north Santa Rosa. Caltrans conducted the review under federal guidance, taking into consideration biological studies, wetland impacts, cultural resources, farmlands, hydraulics and other environmental concerns, according to a spokesman.

Caltrans determined the project would not have any substantial impacts on the environment.

Mansourian defended the length of the review and SMART’s decision to take a “holistic” approach to the planning process for the entire 36-mile stretch where the path is being considered, rather than one piece of the project at a time. He said the projected cost of the pathway is $40 million, and that SMART will work with Caltrans, municipalities and other entities to secure funding and get the work done.

“It’s everybody’s path,” he said.

Even with that, the pathway still would fall well short of what SMART promised voters in 2008 when they approved a 70-mile rail and multi-use path project slated to run from Larkspur to Cloverdale. Mansourian has blamed the drop in sales tax revenue stemming from the economic recession for funding shortfalls that have forced the rail agency to scale back the projects.

Bicycling advocates contend the rail agency has essentially relegated the pathway to second-tier status in violation of mandates in the supporting tax measure, known as Measure Q. They also accuse agency officials of lacking transparency when it comes to how much Measure Q money has been earmarked for the pathway, versus other commitments.

“Where did the money go?” Helfrich said.

Mansourian argued that it is impossible to break out Measure Q funds spent just on the pathway project. He said the money is pooled and distributed to all of rail agency projects and operations, and also used as leverage to gain other sources of revenue, such as grant money.

He said SMART has “one source of money,” and that the rail agency is using those funds “to do the rail, the path, the operations and everything else.”

SMART already had obtained over $4 million in federal grants for pathway construction pending environmental approval of the 36-mile stretch. The agency secured an additional $3.42 million in local and regional grants, bringing the total for pathway construction to $7.46 million, according to an agency spokeswoman.

With federal environmental approvals in place, SMART officials said pathway construction in the following areas will begin this month:

* In Santa Rosa, from Bellevue Avenue to Hearn Avenue; Third Street to SMART’s downtown Santa Rosa station; Sixth Street to Eighth Street; and College Avenue to Guerneville Road.

* In Rohnert Park, from East Cotati Boulevard to Golf Course Drive.

* In Novato, from the Hamilton Station to Hamilton Parkway; Franklin Avenue to Grant Avenue; and Rush Creek Place to Novato San Marin Station.

* In San Rafael, from North San Pedro Road to Marin Civic Center Station.

SMART officials have said the pathway was never intended to parallel the entire length of the rail line, but will meander and use nearby side streets in some places.

The 9.95 miles of pathway that has been completed, or are near completion, include 8.13 miles from Atherton Station to South Petaluma Boulevard; 1.33 miles from Hearn Avenue to Joe Rodota Trail and .49 of a mile from Eighth Street to College Avenue.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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