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SMART secures $11 million grant to purchase three more rail cars

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority received an $11 million state grant Tuesday to purchase three more rail cars for the commuter rail system scheduled to begin operating in December 2016, state and local officials said.

State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, announced the SMART grant, part of a package of 14 grants totaling $224 million to support public transportation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The three additional cars will boost SMART’s seating capacity by 35 percent, officials said. Because of the escalating costs for rail cars, the grant also was estimated to have saved taxpayers about $11 million, according to state officials.

“It’s a big deal,” said Farhad Mansourian, the rail authority’s general manager, expressing thanks to Kelly and McGuire for securing a piece of the competitive grant funding.

The three cars will expand SMART’s existing fleet of 14 cars, which operate in two-car sets, enabling the system to run a trio of three-car sets, Mansourian said. The new cars are “middle cars” that will sandwich between two of the existing cars, he said.

That configuration boosts passenger capacity from 320 people sitting and standing to 450 people in the three-car sets, he said.

The added capacity will help enable SMART to extend service from the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to Windsor, a link currently missing from the rail development plan. The authority also needs $39 million to lay track from the airport area to Windsor, Mansourian said.

SMART took delivery of four gray-and-green rail cars in April and has the other 10 on order, he said.

The rail agency also needs $40 million to extend the line 2.2 miles south from downtown San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission awarded a $20 million grant last year and the other $20 million is included in President Barack Obama’s proposed $4 trillion budget, which is awaiting congressional action.

With the price of rail cars expected to double after 2017, the latest grant saves SMART - and ultimately taxpayers - $11 million, Mansourian said.

Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax to fund SMART, which ultimately will carry passengers in diesel-powered rail cars on a 70-mile route from Cloverdale to Larkspur. The initial 42-mile route is from north Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

“SMART’s success is key to the North Bay’s economy, combating highway congestion and reducing our carbon footprint,” McGuire said.

The rail project will take more than 1.4 million car trips off Highway 101 annually and reduce greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, by at least 124,000 pounds per day, the agency’s website says.

The 14 state grants help support about $720 million in public transportation investments and reduce an estimated 860,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of taking 180,000 cars off the road, the State Transportation Agency said in a press release.

The grants come from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund using proceeds from the state’s cap-and-trade auctions.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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