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SMART gets money for crucial Healdsburg bridge, but lawsuits blocking construction drag on

With a budget line in Washington, Rep. Jared Huffman has opened a pathway for SMART to fully fund the replacement of an aging railroad bridge over the Russian River, a key impediment to the line reaching Healdsburg.

The tentative breakthrough on funding comes amid a prolonged stall in work on the rail system’s extension north of Santa Rosa, where funding is tied up in a lawsuit now before the state Supreme Court. The lawsuit has delayed expansion of the commuter rail system, once slated to reach Windsor by the end of 2021, by six months and counting.

A separate court challenge, meanwhile, has halted work on SMART’s parallel bike and pedestrian pathway, a major setback for the popular trail project. Officials said that case could drag on for months or years, throwing another wrench in SMART’s overall buildout.

The announcement of the Healdsburg bridge money comes as SMART has expanded train service in recent weeks and dropped fares in a bid to jump-start lagging pandemic-era ridership.

Funding for the span, which dates to about 1921, would come through a $13.6 million earmark Huffman, D-San Rafael, secured in a $547 billion transportation bill before the House of Representatives.

Replacing the bridge is “a huge impediment into getting the train into downtown Healdsburg and then north,” Cloverdale councilwoman and SMART board member Melanie Bagby said.

Funding that piece of the project “kind of breaks everything open,” she said.

SMART has already secured a $3.4 million grant from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority to match the proposed federal dollars and complete the bridge replacement project, now pegged at $17 million.

But SMART is building the railroad line north one segment at a time, and is well behind on its first northward expansion — from Santa Rosa to Windsor. Construction on that 3-mile segment is only about a third complete, and work has been halted since the end of last year amid a legal fight over Bay Area bridge tolls.

A voter-approved hike on those tolls was set to fund an array of regional transit projects, including work on the SMART line, but the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued, claiming that the increased bridge tolls amounted to an unlawfully approved tax. The case is pending before the state high court, tying up at least $40 million in SMART funding earmarked for the Windsor expansion.

Analyses by SMART officials have dropped the cost estimates for replacing the Healdsburg bridge several times over the years, from an initial price tag of no less than $50 million down to the current $17 million.

Overall, the price of extending the track from Windsor to Healdsburg, including building a station in Healdsburg, has come down from $194 million in 2019 to $118 million today.

To reach the lower figure, the agency revised an estimate of $25 million to build a maintenance facility that could house trains down to $5 million through plans to convert an existing warehouse into a smaller, satellite maintenance facility.

The cost dropped an additional $44 million when the agency ran new simulations and decided it no longer needed to buy new trains to serve the expanded line. That write-down came through SMART officials crafting a new operations plan where a train would run from Healdsburg to Windsor, where riders would cross the platform and board another train to take them farther south.

Still, lawsuits and national politics ensure there’s little certainty of when the railroad extension will pick up steam north of Santa Rosa.

Huffman’s earmark is included in the INVEST Act, which has passed two House committee hearings. Republicans and Democrats alike have added projects in their districts. Its passage appears more feasible than President Joe Biden’s much larger infrastructure proposal, which is mired in a Senate standoff.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we will get the needed funds to rebuild the Healdsburg rail bridge,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s executive director, said in a statement to The Press Democrat.

SMART began construction on a Windsor extension in January 2020, and the work was estimated to last two years. But the majority of the funding for the $65 million project, some $40 million destined for the railroad from $1 toll hikes on Bay Area bridges, has been tied up in the courts for over two years. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued the Bay Area Toll Authority over the toll measures, which it argues amounted to an illegally passed tax for regional infrastructure projects, not a fee for the use of the bridge.

Though two lower courts have ruled against the taxpayer group, the California Supreme Court agreed in October to take up its appeal, and the case has awaited action since. The toll increase, called Regional Measure 3, secured 55% of the vote in 2018. The measure was designed to raise $4.5 billion for regional transportation projects through three $1 bridge toll increases, one of which has gone into effect.

The Howard Jarvis group argues the measure should have required the two-thirds margin of voters required for tax increases under California’s Proposition 13.

While SMART waits for a court resolution, it is also seeking alternative funding to keep the project advancing, according to Mansourian. “We can’t predict how the California State Supreme Court will rule,” he said.

A separate lawsuit, this one in federal court and directly targeting SMART, has been filed by trackside property owners challenging the legality of constructing a pedestrian and bicycle trail along a right of way historically provided for building rail lines. That lawsuit has halted construction of pathway work, a selling point for voters who approved SMART’s formation in 2008.

At an April 21 board meeting, Mansourian told the agency’s directors the lawsuit could take 18 months to several years to resolve. The agency could not build new pedestrian pathway in the interim, he said.

In Windsor, SMART still needs to construct a platform for people to embark and disembark trains at the existing station building.

Just south of the building, the halt in rail work is unmistakable: The line running south is graded and lined with stacked rail sections. Heavy machinery sat idle on a recent weekday.

Knowing SMART would quickly burn through the other funding it had secured through a mix of state and federal grants, project managers focused on stream crossings, culverts and other drainage construction, agency officials and board members said.

“We had a feeling that the money might get tied up,” Windsor councilwoman and SMART board member Deb Fudge said. The agency also wrote a construction contract that will allow it to avoid a new round of bidding and hiring for the project once, and if, the toll money begins to flow again.

No projected completion date for reaching Windsor now exists since the agency cannot predict when the bridge toll money will flow again, Fudge said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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