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SMART marks opening of new $55 million Larkspur station, with service starting this weekend

Leaders and supporters of the North Bay’s commuter rail line cheered the grand opening Friday of SMART’s new southern terminal in Larkspur, marking what they said would be the next chapter linking the train with ferry service to San Francisco.

They cut a ceremonial ribbon to commemorate completion of the $55.4 million, 2.1-mile rail extension leading from San Rafael, hailing it as a transportation solution for generations to come.

“We’re here to celebrate the progress that we’re making for those in Marin and Sonoma, not only for ourselves, but certainly for our children and our grandchildren,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, chairman of the SMART board. “It also is the next step in a ‘promise’ that was made some number of years ago to the community, and this is one more step in satisfying that. We’re not giving up on those commitments that were made by SMART, and this is evidence of that.”

Attendees in the hundreds showed up amid damp, chilly weather, as a blanket of winter fog settled over the nearby hills. Guests included former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, an early champion of the now $600 million rail line, and Lillian Hames, SMART’s first general manager. They were joined by scores of other local, state and federal representatives as well as longtime supporters of SMART.

“This is a big, big day,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said over the hisses and pops of a train parked near the speaker’s podium. “We have broken a lot of ground, we have cut a lot of ribbons, and to those who were there from the beginning, I know that today has an extra special meaning. And we’re not done. … We’re going to keep going, all the way to Cloverdale.”

The Larkspur station sits about a half-mile - a 7- to 10-minute walk - from the ferry terminal serving San Francisco. The extension is the final Marin County segment on the 70-mile rail line approved by voters in 2008. It expands the current system to 45 miles, with buildout north of Santa Rosa delayed years ago by financial shortfalls linked to the recession.

SMART hopes to reach Windsor by late 2021, at an estimated cost of $65 million. Officials have declined to say when the line might expand north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, at a total estimated cost of $364 million.

On Saturday, SMART will host a 10:30 a.m. opening ceremony at its new platform in downtown Novato - the city’s third station, completed recently at a cost of $7 million.

Combined with an expanded weekday schedule that starts on Jan. 2, officials are hoping the new service bolsters support in the run-up to a March election, when voters in Sonoma and Marin counties will be asked to extend for another 30 years SMART’s quarter-cent sales tax, its primary funding source.

The 2-year-old system has carried more than 1.6 million passengers to date, but it remains a focus of sharp public debate, fueled by unanswered questions about how many people ride the train daily and the extent to which it has helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and alleviate congestion on Highway 101.

SMART has repeatedly declined to provide passenger records that could address some of those points.

The extension to Larkspur included reconstruction of the Cal Park Hill Tunnel in 2010 to accommodate the train, as well as cyclists and pedestrians, easing passage to and from San Rafael. The railroad tunnel dates to the late 19th century, but hadn’t seen a train since the 1960s and required $27 million to upgrade.

Between the tunnel rehabilitation and path project, SMART’s Larkspur extension and completion of a nearby bridge, total investment in the area has reached about $100 million, according to Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

Mansourian, the former head of Marin County Public Works, enjoyed a warm reception Friday afternoon.

“This opening is very sweet for us at SMART,” he told the audience. “We’re very proud of all the obstructions that (were) thrown at us in this project and that we had to overcome one at a time. Everybody said this will never happen. Well, we made it happen thanks to the hard work of everybody. We will not be detoured with naysayers. We get our strength from people who ride the train, who tell us how we’ve made a difference in their lives.”

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

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