SMART loses out on federal grant for Larkspur extension

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The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority is unlikely to receive a $20 million federal grant that the agency was counting on to extend the commuter line to Larkspur, a blow that could significantly delay construction on one of the key segments of the $660 million rail project.

The news surfaced this week as other winners of the highly competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants were announced by members of Congress in at least two dozen states. SMART was not mentioned among the grant winners, whose congressional representatives were told of the awards Tuesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

A senior Senate staff member familiar with the list of grant winners said the SMART project was not among the recipients. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not official.

The Department of Transportation is expected to officially announce the winners next week, said Howard Hill, transportation analyst in the department’s Office of Infrastructure, Finance and Innovation.

“The secretary gave them the first bite at this glistening apple as a courtesy,” he said.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who wrote a letter of support for SMART’s TIGER grant application, did not hear from the Department of Transportation, according to Paul Arden, Huffman’s spokesman. Sen. Barbara Boxer also did not hear from the department, according to spokeswoman Rachel Cohen. Boxer also had written to Department of Transportation in support of the grant, she said.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, said he could not comment on the grant until the official DOT announcement.

“I won’t speculate on ‘what if,’” he said. “We’re waiting to hear the official announcement.”

SMART officials had hoped to secure the federal grant to match a $20 million funding piece that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved in May. The $40 million project would extend the commuter line 2.2 miles to the Larkspur ferry terminal and other regional transportation nodes.

That link was included in the original commuter rail proposal that voters approved in 2008. But faced with a funding shortfall during the recession, the SMART board in 2011 decided to build what it could with the funds in hand. The Larkspur extension, and a northern extension to Cloverdale, were removed from the 43-mile first phase, currently under construction between Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael.

Trains are expected to run on the line starting in late 2016.

Without the federal grant, SMART still will be able to use the $20 million from MTC, and the regional transportation agency will help SMART identify a funding source to make up the balance of the project, MTC spokesman John Goodwin said.

“If we are operating under the assumption that SMART won’t get the TIGER funds, it really doesn’t change anything. Our staff will continue to work with SMART to advance the extension to Larkspur,” he said, noting that the announcement was not yet official.

Still, the apparent loss of the federal grant could pose a setback for the commuter rail agency, forcing it to extend its funding search into another calendar year and potentially delaying work on the project’s southern terminal. Mansourian declined to discuss Wednesday what an extended funding search would mean for SMART or its project timeline.

As is, if SMART had won the federal grant it would have been hard-pressed to complete the segment to Larkspur by the planned 2016 opening. Further delay is almost certain to postpone the completion of the segment beyond the first phase of the line.

David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County supervisor and SMART board member, said the agency is committed to finding the funds to complete the project.

“If that’s the case, it’s disappointing to not receive it,” he said after hearing from a reporter Wednesday that SMART was not awarded the grant. “We really felt we were in a good position this time. It’s going to take longer to get there, but we will get there.”

SMART has unsuccessfully applied for TIGER grants six times. The previous five applications were for a planned bike path that will parallel the 70-mile rail line.

The agency applied for the latest TIGER grant in April, joining a list of projects competing for $600 million in available funding. The DOT received applications from 797 transportation infrastructure projects nationwide seeking $9.5 billion in funding.

Some of the projects that did receive funding include a $20 million upgrade to the Port of Seattle, $25 million for street improvements in New York City and $10 million for a freeway interchange in Southern California.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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