With only 16 miles finished, cyclists upset by SMART’s delays in completing promised bike path

The commuter rail agency plans to have 24 miles of the paved trail finished by 2021, leaving advocacy groups concerned it could take decades to complete the path.|

Nearly a year and a half since the North Bay rolled out its commuter rail, cyclists in the region feel slighted over how little of the paved path SMART promised along the tracks is finished.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is scheduled to extend by year’s end its train operations more than 2 miles south to Larkspur, completing 45 miles of the planned 70-mile line that will eventually stretch up to Cloverdale.

However, just 16.2 miles of the separated bicycle and walking trail linking each of the stations has been built. That includes short segments totaling about 5 miles across Novato, San Rafael and Cotati completed in the past two years.

Another 1-mile segment northwest of the downtown Petaluma Station is set to be built this summer.

Still, that will represent about a third of the 54 miles SMART pledged as part of Measure Q, a ¼-cent sales tax hike Sonoma and Marin county voters approved more than a decade ago to create the North Bay commuter rail system. Another 16 miles of existing trail next to the train corridor is to receive upgrades.

Critics, including two cycling advocacy groups in the region that boast thousands of members, contend what’s accessible now falls far short of SMART’s obligation.

“The goal of Measure Q was for the entire railway to have the bike and pedestrian path,” said Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “Many people were expecting this to be continuously built with the track. We haven’t seen an actual commitment from SMART.”

SMART said it’s making progress on the path. Over the course of a week, however, the agency was unable to furnish figures showing how much it had spent to date on the multiuse trail.

SMART staff members planned to produce the total cost in time for an upcoming board workshop in April, an agency spokeswoman said.

Maps produced by SMART depicting completed and future sections of the multiuse pathway show existing bicycle routes near stations. Weaver said many of them are poorly maintained back roads without shoulders or protections from cars, and thus inadequate.

“It implies that this is a good bike route. But if you actually ride a bike, it’s pretty laughable,” she said, noting suggested connections along her daily commute from Cotati to Santa Rosa are not for the faint of heart. “I haven’t ridden all the routes in the county, but that one at least is not really somewhere you want to send cyclists.”

Ultimately the delay in build-out is a matter of available resources, according SMART board chairman Gary Phillips.

The agency had to deal with a sales-tax shortfall from the economic downturn, in addition to costly environmental studies on some stretches of path that have prevented completion, he said.

“Part of it is that there is only so much money to construct both the track and the paths and most of it has been devoted to the track in terms of priority, and that’s probably the appropriate emphasis,” said Phillips, who as mayor of San Rafael has served on the SMART board for seven years. “If you don’t have the money what are you going to do? It’s not that mysterious. Like it or not, that is reality.”

Through the 2018 fiscal year, SMART has received about $289 million in sales tax revenues from Measure Q, according to the agency.

The commuter rail service has been popular with cyclists, as exhibited by SMART having carried its 100,000th bicycle as of earlier this month, but how much of that revenue has been used to build the pathway is unclear.

Instead of spending large chunks of the Measure Q revenues on the bicycle path, SMART has gone after outside grants to pay for the blacktop adjacent to the train - all the while pouring the majority of its annual sales tax on a system expansion.

Recently the rail agency sought $27.5 million in regional transportation dollars to build 15 miles more of pathway in Sonoma County.

Earlier this month, the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission came back with partial funding, granting ?$12.5 million so SMART can build a smaller portion of the proposal.

Construction of the truncated project, totaling nearly 5 miles from two segments - between Petaluma and Penngrove and Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa - is planned for 2021, according to SMART.

Before that gets underway, SMART also expects completion of an additional 2 miles of bike path by 2020 that’s tied to the Larkspur extension at a cost of $8 million.

A majority of the two-phase project - over which the Marin County Bicycle Coalition threatened a lawsuit if the pathway was excluded from build-out plans, a dispute that U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, stepped into to help resolve - is also being covered by outside funds, including a mix of local, state and federal dollars.

Still, the one-off funding strategy isn’t one that is meeting demands across the region, say advocates of the pathway.

Some say they’re victims of a bait-and-switch after the multiuse path was thrown into Measure Q to garner support from the cycling community once the prior attempt to fund SMART through a similar tax measure in 2006 narrowly failed.

“We’ve been disappointed with the board and the agency as a whole for its lack of urgency and accountability to deliver the pathway as promised to voters,” said Bjorn Griepenburg, policy and planning director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, which endorsed Measure Q. “As we’ve seen in the past, continuing to rely on competitive grant funding will yield predictable results - a pathway built in a slow, piecemeal fashion over several years, if not decades.”

Once each of the planned pathway segments is finished, SMART’s total would increase to about 24 miles. With service scheduled to reach Windsor by early 2022, another 3 miles of path from the station near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport north is included in the $55 million price tag, according to SMART’s spokeswoman.

No plans are presently in place to build the bike trail between there and 6 miles south to the Santa Rosa platform off Guerneville Road, though.

“I’m in favor of honoring commitments and this was one of those, constrained by reality of funding and environmental realities in some of the areas,” Phillips said.

“The community expects the multiuse path for the entire span and that is the board’s - or at least my - objective, and we’re certainly pursuing it, as evidenced by the work in San Rafael.”

The public is invited to offer feedback at the SMART board workshop, where the agency will review its progress on the pathway, on April 3. It will be held at 1:30 pm. at its Petaluma headquarters, 5401 Old Redwood Highway.

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

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