SMART officials present $2.6 billion wish list for future North Bay rail projects
SMART officials on Wednesday unveiled a wish list of rail and related infrastructure projects for the next decade and beyond with an eye-popping estimated price tag: $2.6 billion.
The list is for now unfunded and would rely on a host of future federal, state and local money, but it outlines how SMART officials would like to expand the North Bay’s still-nascent passenger rail system to serve a greater swath of the region, including parts of Napa and Solano counties.
Half of the overall figure stems from the estimated cost to extend SMART east to link with Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line in Suisun City. That extension, first pitched years ago by state rail officials and echoed since by SMART supporters including General Manager Farhad Mansourian, would cost about $1.3 billion, officials estimated.
SMART’s main push, meanwhile — extending rail service north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale — accounts for the bulk of an additional $338 million of the overall total. Smaller portions of that sum are tied to a second Petaluma station and funds to complete the $65 million, 3-mile extension to Windsor that is underway and is expected to be done by sometime in 2022.
SMART currently runs on 45 miles of refurbished rail line from Larkspur to north of Santa Rosa, with a network of trains, stations and modernized track that have cost about $653 million since voters authorized the project in 2008. A completed line between Larkspur and Cloverdale would span about 70 miles.
Officials were quick to couch Wednesday’s projections, presented to SMART’s board of directors, as very early cost estimates. Mansourian also described the proposals as a “financially unconstrained” list.
SMART’s 12-member board, chaired by Sonoma County Supervsior David Rabbitt and filled out by a mix of local elected officials and appointees, will be prioritizing projects on the list in the weeks and months to come.
Some of the figures are not entirely new. A state report had previously pegged the cost of an eastward expansion for SMART at $1 billion. And SMART’s prior estimates for the Healdsburg and Cloverdale extensions totaled about $364 million.
Still, the spending projections give voters and the board a complete picture of what could be in the works, SMART Chief Financial Officer Heather McKillop said in an interview.
“One of the things we’ve been criticized about is you’re not giving the whole story of what needs to be done,” she said.
And the list comes at a heady time for public transit agencies, which have been battered by pandemic-era drops in ridership and funding but now stand to benefit from billions of dollars in federal stimulus and infrastructure money pledged by the Biden administration.
Entities with “shovel ready” projects often get priority when those funds are freed up, and SMART’s wish list, crafted by top officials, is meant to show “we’re ready and we’ve identified (priorities),” McKillop said.
The construction cost estimates are likely to rise with time, officials cautioned.
The estimate for the eastward expansion from Novato to Suisun City already is around $300 million higher the figure put forward in the state’s 18-month study completed in the spring of 2019. That proposed line would take SMART trains along a portion of traffic-clogged Highway 37 that is already under threat from sea level rise.
Another key sum in the overall total is the estimated $820 million that would be needed to add a second north-south rail line to the system, a change SMART Chief Engineer Bill Gamlen said would allow more frequent train service.
Completing the remaining bike and pedestrian path segments between San Rafael and Cloverdale will cost an additional $108 million, according to SMART.
Some of that work is under legal threat by trackside property owners who contend that SMART’s historic entitlement to the rail right of way does not cover its use for bike and walking paths.
The financial implications of that lawsuit spurred Rabbitt to ask on Wednesday how much the path’s cost would balloon if the rail agency had to purchase land for it.
Mansourian shut that inquiry down. “The attorney sitting here is moving around in his chair,” he said, speaking from SMART’s offices during the online meeting.
SMART has yet responded formally to the lawsuit, which the board was set to discuss in closed session.
Smaller-ticket train and track upgrades such as cameras at rail crossings added up to $37.7 million. About $7.2 million would go to improve radio systems and other communication and train controls.
SMART, which is supported largely by a quarter-cent voter-approved sales tax, projects it will have at least $46 million budgeted for capital projects through 2029. But about half of that money is slated for ongoing operation and maintenance, leaving more than $26 million for new, as-yet undefined projects.