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$20 million for SMART’s Larkspur extension in President Obama’s budget

Funding for an extension of the North Bay’s commuter rail line to Larkspur was included Monday in President Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget, giving the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority a long-awaited source of capital to complete the southern end of the line.

The $20 million in proposed funding through the Federal Transit Authority’s Small Starts program plus an additional $20 million regional grant that was approved last year would fully fund the 2.2-mile line from San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal, SMART officials said. Obama’s budget plan now goes to the Republican-controlled Congress, where it will likely be altered before coming back to the president’s desk.

“We feel very good that it is in the president’s budget,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

The proposed funding to complete a critical piece of the $660 million rail project and link it to the regional transportation network comes four months after SMART lost its bid to secure $20 million through a different federal grant. It comes more than three years after the SMART board, amid a sluggish economy and sagging sales tax revenue, decided to scale back the 70-mile Cloverdale-Larkspur rail system to an initial 43-mile segment that will run from Santa Rosa to San Rafael starting in late 2016.

SMART officials did not know Monday whether the Larkspur extension could be included in the initial segment if Congress approves the funding.

Critics of SMART have derided the project as “a train to nowhere” since the scaled-down first phase did not connect with the commuter ferry to San Francisco as promised to voters in Sonoma and Marin counties who approved the project in 2008. The $40 million Larkspur extension will include some tricky engineering hurdles in building the rail line through downtown San Rafael and south across Anderson Drive.

According to an environmental assessment of the Larkspur extension posted to SMART’s website in December, an estimated 5,218 riders per day are expected to use the system. That number goes up to 5,449 when the extension is included.

SMART board members on Monday welcomed the news that the Larkspur extension was included in the president’s budget.

“I’m so excited about this,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a SMART board member. “We’ve been trying to get this money for a long time. This is the silver bullet to get us to Larkspur.”

Obama’s budget proposal includes $478 billion for infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and transit systems, to be financed by taxes on overseas earnings. Of that, $2.5 billion is in new budget allocations for the Federal Transit Authority’s New Starts and Small Starts programs.

SMART officials voiced confidence that proposed $20 million would be left untouched through budget negotiations over the coming months since it comes through an established government program. Also, Republicans in Congress have signaled a willingness to work with the White House to improve the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, one of the few issues with bipartisan support, officials said.

Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who has worked to secure federal funding for SMART, said he was happy the extension was included in the budget proposal.

“It’s fantastic to see it in the president’s budget,” said Huffman, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I will continue to be vigilant to make sure we hang onto this proposal.”

An extension of the rail line north to Cloverdale and much of the bike path that voters approved remain unfunded.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MattBrownPD.

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