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SMART officials present $2.6 billion wish list for future North Bay rail projects

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project list

SMART estimates for proposed capital projects

$1.3 billion: Novato-to-Suisun City extension

$820.8 million: Adding a second track to north-south line at 12 spots

$338 million: Rail service extension to Healdsburg, Cloverdale, plus some funding for Windsor project and North Petaluma station

$108.8 million: To complete the bike and pedestrian path segments between San Rafael and Cloverdale

$47 million: Track and train control upgrades; safety, security and communications systems

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.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project list

SMART estimates for proposed capital projects

$1.3 billion: Novato-to-Suisun City extension

$820.8 million: Adding a second track to north-south line at 12 spots

$338 million: Rail service extension to Healdsburg, Cloverdale, plus some funding for Windsor project and North Petaluma station

$108.8 million: To complete the bike and pedestrian path segments between San Rafael and Cloverdale

$47 million: Track and train control upgrades; safety, security and communications systems

And while tax revenue projections could fluctuate based on the economic recovery, ridership trends and other disasters in the area, SMART has leaned most heavily on federal and state grants to launch and complete its rail projects. Looming large over Wednesday’s discussion was the once-in-a-generation windfall taking shape in Washington, D.C. for transportation projects.

“The big money will be in the infrastructure plan and on the ongoing annual appropriations in the infrastructure bill,“ Mansourian said. ”That’s where the big projects will be.“

Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, unveiled in basic form last week, would allot $80 billion to rail projects, $85 billion for existing public transit infrastructure and $115 billion for bridge and road repair and construction, according to an analysis by National Public Radio. But with staunch Republican opposition, corporate lobbyists gearing up against the tax changes Biden wants to pay for the plan and divisions among Democrats, the shape and timeline of any bill is far from clear.

SMART officials returned Wednesday to their messaging for voters, who last year rejected the agency’s bid for an early, 30-year extension of the existing sales tax that supports operations. Before that tax expires in 2029, SMART proponents have four election cycles, including two in presidential election years with high voter turnout that McKillop suggested could be more favorable for passing the extension.

Without an early renewal, SMART is likely to miss out on chances to secure construction financing and government grants, officials said Wednesday.

Advocates for the bike and pedestrian path, a key but wavering block of SMART constituents, again pushed the board to prioritize that project, which remains only about a third of the way done.

“If we're going to ever get the tax measure passed people are going to need to see physical progress, which means additional paths they can ride on,” Eris Weaver, director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said.

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

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