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SMART makes progress toward 2021 opening of Windsor extension

Construction has ramped up on the North Bay commuter rail system’s extension north to Windsor as SMART aims to launch service by the end of next year, but with possible financial hurdles ahead that could delay completion of the $65 million expansion project.

Crews this week began welding work on new steel rail after about six months of planning and clearing the existing right-of-way, including removal of overgrown vegetation, old wooden rail ties and decaying rail line. Nearly 1,000 tons of steel and 11,000 new concrete rail ties have been delivered to the site to begin reconstructing the 3-mile segment and replace five wooden bridges later this month through the fall.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials call the agency’s first foray into the north county another major milestone on its way to eventually meeting its commitment in 2008 to build a 70-mile line from Larkspur to Cloverdale. Finishing Windsor in what became a phased project because of sales tax revenue shortfalls would bring the total up to 48 miles.

“SMART has had a tough time,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, one of the SMART board’s longest-serving members. “But each time we add a station, it’s just showing the public that we’re intent on finishing the line, and we’re not just saying the words, we’re actually performing. And as hard as it’s been, we take great pride at each step that we take to complete the line. Each step is as important as opening day.”

The rail agency will mark its third anniversary of service next month. Completion of the new extension, plus the platform at the existing Windsor depot, would mean SMART has finished a dozen — or 80% — of its originally planned 15 stations. SMART last year also added a third station in Novato, and its board last month approved spending $8 million toward a second station in Petaluma, on the city’s east side.

That would leave 22 miles of track and a station in Healdsburg left to build. Cloverdale already has a depot that has been awaiting commuter rail service since 1999. But finding outside grants to help fund that portion of the line — estimated by SMART at $364 million — could be tricky, board members have acknowledged, given the two cities’ small populations, and the enormous cost to get to each. As a result, SMART has yet to assign expected completion dates.

On Wednesday, the 12-member SMART board voted unanimously to have agency staff negotiate with regional transportation officials to include the two northern extensions — the 5 miles of track from Windsor to Healdsburg, plus the station, and 17 miles from Healdsburg to Cloverdale — on a priority list over the next four years. Not being included on the regional list would prevent SMART from being able to seek outside grants for the two projects through at least 2025.

SMART’s focus otherwise remains hitting its late 2021 target for Windsor, including building a more than 3-mile segment of an adjacent multiuse pathway for bicycles and pedestrians. But even that date may be in some question.

The Windsor extension is fully funded, including a $2.4 million contingency for unforeseen costs. The county is also chipping in more than $4 million to the project to cover a long-planned lane-widening and crosswalk project along SMART’s operations center and current northern station terminus on Airport Boulevard. And the Windsor Town Council received a $375,000 commitment from a developer to construct a portion of the bicycle and pedestrian pathway in the deal for a nearby housing project within town limits.

Last month, the Windsor extension also was awarded another $5 million in state funding through a sustainable housing grant in partnership with an affordable housing developer, the city of Santa Rosa and the county of Sonoma. However, the bulk of proceeds dedicated to Windsor — $40 million — remains tied up in a protracted legal battle over a toll hike on state-owned bridges approved by Bay Area voters in June 2018.

Voters in the nine-county Bay Area passed Regional Measure 3 with 55% support, permitting three $1 bridge toll increases through 2025, to fund $4.5 billion in regional road and transit upgrades. Combined with a $20 million grant from the state and $10 million in other state and federal awards, SMART has more than enough money to pay for the Windsor extension.

Also last month, a three-judge appellate court upheld an April 2019 legal ruling that favored the Bay Area Toll Authority. But the lead plaintiff, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, has filed a petition for the state Supreme Court to review the case. That process could take up to a year to play out if the court accepts the request, according to the group’s director of legal affairs.

SMART has enough money to pay Alameda-based rail construction contractor Stacy and Witbeck Inc., for work on the Windsor extension until December, according to General Manager Farhad Mansourian. After that, the contract will have to be renegotiated or it could lead to a work stoppage, which is likely to increase costs and eat into the contingency fund.

The northern expansion project already hit a snag this spring, in the form of a temporary suspension of work that lasted about a month due to the shelter-in-place order tied to the coronavirus pandemic. Any additional work stoppages — namely those connected to running out of money — stand to postpone finishing the extension for an indefinite period of time while Bay Area transit agencies await resolution of the appeal, and potential release of the money.

If the extension project can continue moving forward on schedule, however, any potential savings would likely be put toward continuing construction of the line toward Healdsburg, Mansourian said.

“The sense of accomplishment is great for us,” he said of finishing each subsequent station. “We’re committed in delivering the vision and we’ve been working very hard in getting this kind of money, and Windsor is our next one, and then the two after that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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