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SMART to begin upgrades for freight operations with California grant

Great Redwood Trail Virtual Town Hall

When: Thursday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m.

Who: State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and other speakers

RSVP: https://sd02.senate.ca.gov/great-redwood-trail-town-hall

SMART will spend nearly $1.5 million in state grant funds on upgrading the Black Point Bridge that spans the lower Petaluma River and expanding commercial hauling infrastructure — two projects geared to the rail agency’s takeover of regional freight service later this year.

Private matching funds will double the amount Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has to make the first major improvements tied to its looming oversight of commercial rail, which could begin as soon as this summer.

The bridge work calls for an estimated $400,000 in repairs and federally-mandated safety equipment enhancements to allow freight use. The remaining $2.5 million will go toward renovating a pair of existing freight spurs that allow pick up and delivery of commercial goods along the rail line in Sonoma County, as well as adding a new spur within Windsor’s industrial area.

“This is really a good (shot) in the (arm) for us,” SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian told the agency’s board earlier this month. “We are not in the freight business yet, but the state saw the value of starting to integrate businesses, and especially in the northern part of our district, in Santa Rosa, Windsor and beyond. Trying to get more trucks off the congested roadways will be huge.”

The grant funds come through the California Transportation Commission, sourced from a mix of state gas tax revenues and dedicated federal highway dollars, with an aim of modernizing and expanding freight rail access and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

SMART was one of seven entities throughout California to receive funds this grant cycle. Over a 15-year period, the resulting projects will lead to 15,000 fewer daily truck hauling trips on the highways, leading to a reduction of more than 2 million tons of carbon emissions, according to the transportation commission.

SMART’s initial plans call for refurbishing a freight spur for use at the Pruitt Industrial Park south off Shiloh Road in Windsor for commercial hauling service. A 3-mile passenger rail extension from Santa Rosa north to Windsor was recently delayed into 2022 due to a funding shortfall. A second spur in Windsor would primarily serve the Jackson Family Wines distribution center further south at Aviation Boulevard.

“They’re both perfect to be able to get trucks off the road. So we’re pretty excited that we might be able to help them pay for spurs that they would not have been able to afford to do,” Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a longtime SMART board member, said earlier this month.

Another existing spur in southwest Santa Rosa also would be renovated for potential use by Recology waste management near Todd Road for hauling trash and recyclables via rail, according to Joanne Parker, SMART’s grants manager.

The effort aligns with SMART’s planned takeover of commercial freight operations from the region’s lone hauler, Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co.

Last year, the state paid NWP Co. $4 million to buy out its stake in the line. The authorizing legislation came from state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who also pledged $10 million in state funds for SMART toward deferred freight maintenance. So far, $2 million of those funds have been delivered.

Under McGuire’s legislation, SB 1029, California will spend at least another $7.4 million to pay off the debt racked up over more than 30 years by the North Coast Railroad Authority, the financially troubled public agency based in Ukiah that manages freight rail operations for the region. The bill also granted SMART exclusive control over the final 21 miles of its planned service route, from Healdsburg north to near the Sonoma County-Mendocino County line, as well as established the Great Redwood Trail, a planned 316-mile footpath from the San Francisco Bay north to the Humboldt Bay.

A state study of the six-county path released in November estimated the project to cost up to $5 billion. If completed, the Great Redwood Trail would be the nation’s longest, nonmotorized path on a former railway.

Under SB 69, a follow-up bill that McGuire introduced in December, the NCRA would be dissolved by the middle of next year and transitioned into a trail management agency. The new state grant awarded to SMART helps advance the group of projects closer to fruition, McGuire said.

“This is great news for the North Bay and exactly why we’ve pushed so hard to get freight rail into public hands with our landmark Great Redwood Trail project,” he said in a written statement. “This $1.5 million down payment will be put to work connecting rail to businesses along the SMART line to help bolster freight rail activity in Marin and Sonoma counties.”

The SMART board of directors meets for its regular bimonthly meeting on Wednesday afternoon. McGuire, meanwhile, will host a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday evening to provide an update on the Great Redwood Trail.

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

Great Redwood Trail Virtual Town Hall

When: Thursday, Feb. 18, 6 p.m.

Who: State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and other speakers

RSVP: https://sd02.senate.ca.gov/great-redwood-trail-town-hall

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