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For more PD coverage of SMART, go here

Up and running for less than three months on a portion of its planned 70-mile route, the North Bay’s new commuter rail line is pursuing a plan to branch out to Solano County, where it would connect with the national rail system running from coast to coast.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system already owns 25 miles of track from Novato to the north end of Vallejo and would acquire use of the tracks from there to an Amtrak station at Suisun City.

“You gotta have a vision so you can get places,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART general manager. At Suisun City, North Bay passengers could “go anywhere in the country,” he said.

The proposed extension, known as the Novato-Solano Hub, is included in the 2018 California State Rail Plan drafted by Caltrans as a blueprint for boosting ridership on the statewide rail and bus system from 110,000 daily trips currently to more than 1.3 million daily trips by 2040.

SMART officials said they were pleased to be included in the state plan and are seeking an $837,000 grant to pay for a feasibility study of the link to Suisun City.

Debora Fudge, SMART board chairwoman and Windsor mayor, said the eastward expansion, “our dream for 20 years,” may now be closer than ever.

Mansourian told the board last week the state plan provided “a tremendous opportunity (and) we’re jumping all over it.”

There are no cost estimates for the extension in the state plan, and Mansourian said in an interview it would be useless to come up with a “back of the napkin” estimate.

“I’ll be happy to do that in a year and half” when the feasibility study is completed, he said, referring to a price tag for the Solano County connection.

Planning the extension does not detract from SMART’s goal to complete the original 70-mile route from Cloverdale south to Larkspur, connecting passengers with the Golden Gate ferry terminal.

Construction of the 2.1-mile extension from San Rafael to Larkspur recently started and is scheduled for completion in early 2019.

SMART hasn’t set deadlines for extending service north to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale, but the state rail plan calls for completion of the full line by 2027. Connection to the Solano County Hub is listed as a goal for 2040 in the state plan, which includes Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed San Francisco to Los Angeles high-speed rail line.

SMART operates a 43-mile route from near the Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael.

Carol Russell, a SMART board member and Cloverdale councilwoman, said she had no qualms about the rail agency’s new direction.

Russell, a self-described “big-time rail booster,” said the connection to Amtrak at Suisun City would “attract more attention and money” to SMART.

“We’re being recognized as the first step toward the future,” she said.

Since the green and gray diesel-powered trains began running Aug. 25, the rail line has carried 137,702 passengers, averaging 15,300 a week and nearly matching the projected ridership of 15,600 a day, as of Nov. 1.

SMART’s eastward track intersects the north-south line at a “Y” connection in Novato and runs east along Highway 37, then north along Highway 121 to Schellville, where it jogs east over the Napa River to Vallejo.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The only part of the line that flooded last winter is at Schellville and that condition would have to be addressed, Mansourian said.

The extension would offer relief to traffic congestion on Highway 37, which he described as “a mess.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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