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SMART to hold listening forum for Healdsburg as north county presses for timeline

SMART listening session – Healdsburg

When: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 5-6:30 p.m.

For more information, visit: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJYodu6trzgoE937a4H7jcBAUEPkhKuaN3Gr

SMART is standing by its pledge to complete the northern reaches of its planned 70-mile commuter rail line, but agency officials remain tight-lipped about key details, including the present timetable and evolving cost to get trains to Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

The mixed message comes as SMART is set to hold the third of its listening sessions in three northern Sonoma County cities, part of a two-county tour launched after the overwhelming defeat of its quarter-cent sales tax extension in March.

Residents of Healdsburg and Cloverdale have repeatedly asked Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit staff and board members about when they can anticipate seeing the train arrive in their cities. With little exception, they have yet to get a clear or definitive answer.

On Wednesday, in a session dedicated to Healdsburg, north county residents will have another chance to press their case.

Renee Roe told SMART leadership during Monday’s session, focused on Cloverdale, that she bought her home in the county’s northernmost city five years ago in part because of the prospect of the train. She sought details about SMART’s plan to reach its long-envisioned northern terminus, where a station has sat ready for more than two decades.

“We feel that there’s very little hope that we’ll ever see in our lifetimes the SMART train come to Cloverdale, so it’s hard for us to get behind additional taxes heading toward the project if we’re not going to benefit,” Roe said. “It just seems like we need to have a plan for the city of Cloverdale instead of continuing to just wish it would come. What are the steps and exact things that need to happen?”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a SMART board member, acknowledged that obstacles, mostly financial, stand in the path of the train’s arrival in the near future. City officials, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of commuter rail as an economic driver, guiding commercial and residential development.

But no timeline was divulged, as SMART officials again sought to secure public support for a project without stating when they think they can fully deliver it.

Uncertainty about future funding remains a key sticking point. SMART estimates that getting from Healdsburg to Cloverdale alone could cost $170 million. Such a price tag to serve so few people ― Cloverdale has about 8,600 residents ― does not score well in the ranking system used to help determine federal and state grant funding awards toward transit projects, Rabbitt said.

“Dollars for any infrastructure project are seemingly harder and harder to come by,” Rabbitt said Monday. “In this case, what’s important too is voters looked at this as an entire system, but, truthfully, it’s challenging. We just need to kind of keep it up and keep fighting forward for those dollars to flow down from (Washington) D.C. through Sacramento and into Sonoma County.”

The system last month marked three years of operations, with the current 45-mile line stretching from from Larkspur to north of Santa Rosa. The 3-mile, $65 million extension to Windsor is expected to be ready by the end of next year.

Windsor residents and Mayor Dominic Foppoli expressed enthusiasm last week at the town’s dedicated SMART forum over the long-awaited start of service. They highlighted the train’s potential to bring more tourists to town, and also asked that SMART consider adding back routes, including on weekends and to serve special events or align better with with the ferry schedule for Giants and Warriors games after the pandemic.

Beyond Windsor, SMART would need to reconstruct 5 miles of track north to Healdsburg, where a new station is needed, plus an additional 17 miles of line from Healdsburg to Cloverdale, where the existing depot awaits the train’s arrival.

SMART previously identified the cost of that combined 22-mile expansion, on top of a corresponding bicycle and pedestrian pathway and needed system upgrades, at $364 million — roughly half of the agency’s $653 million investment to date for equipment and build out.

Leftover funds from the Windsor project may allow some design and other early preparations for Healdsburg, SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said Monday. Also, the refurbishment of the aging rail trestle that spans the Russian River leading into town may cost less than the $50 million to $75 million once feared, potentially bringing down the overall cost of the extension to Healdsburg, still pegged at $194 million.

However, a February letter from SMART to Healdsburg shared a lower estimate to build a new station, reconstruct the bridge and make associated safety improvements ― at roughly $32 million. SMART officials have not disclosed a total amended cost to get to Healdsburg. Mansourian said the agency is planning to release the figure “in the very, very near future.”

“We have reduced the cost of the bridge substantially. (It’s) a huge number and we’re very happy with where we are,” Mansourian said Monday, without specifying the amount of those savings. A SMART spokesman on Tuesday also declined to provide any more specifics.

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017
SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

Members of the public are invited to join the Healdsburg-focused virtual listening event Wednesday to learn more about SMART’s plans for its northern extensions, as well as ask questions and share general concerns. Sessions for Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cotati are planned for October, but with no final dates.

“The agency really does care about how we’re serving our community,” said Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, a SMART board member. “The world is run by those who show up. So, yes, show up and give us your thoughts about how this agency and train should be run. Show us how we could make it more valuable to you.”

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

SMART listening session – Healdsburg

When: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 5-6:30 p.m.

For more information, visit: https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJYodu6trzgoE937a4H7jcBAUEPkhKuaN3Gr

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