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SMART pinpoints opening date for Healdsburg with early sales tax renewal, grant funds

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SMART could extend service to Healdsburg by 2024 if the sales tax extension on Tuesday’s ballot passes and the agency succeeds in securing outside grants, the commuter rail agency has told city officials, publicly identifying for the first time a target date for the system’s expansion north of Windsor.

The disclosure came in a Feb. 21 letter from Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit to Healdsburg that was part of staff report for the City Council in its review of a city-owned property and its potential uses. The council’s discussion, which includes exploring whether Healdsburg’s future SMART station might be built at 3 North St., is scheduled for Monday night.

“Should either of these state requests result in funding to construct SMART Healdsburg rail extension elements ... the proposed schedule would design, construct, test and launch service during the 2022-2024 time period,” reads the letter signed by Joanne Parker, SMART’s programming and grants manager to City Manager David Mickaelian. It was posted online Thursday night in a packet for Healdsburg council members.

SMART previously estimated the cost to extend the passenger rail line to Healdsburg at $194  million. The total — most of which would come from a mix of regional, state and federal grants — includes the station and reconstruction of a bridge over the Russian River, plus several new trains and a rail yard in northern Sonoma County for storage and maintenance needs.

SMART board members and top administrators have long denied that a target date existed for the start of service in Healdsburg and declined to say when they aimed to expand the system north from Windsor, where the train is on track to arrive by late 2021. Their reasoning over the past year has been that the agency did not want to make public any date without first securing the money needed for the project.

“We’ve been hesitant to put a year out there, because it’s contingent on this grant and that grant. There’s a lot of ifs,” said Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, who serves as SMART’s board chairman. “But the board policy has always been Larkspur to Cloverdale. So staff is constantly working and pursuing every grant and turning over every rock ... and the direction from the board is to go to Cloverdale tomorrow.”

The disclosure comes just days before the most pivotal election for SMART since it was approved by voters in Sonoma and Marin counties in 2008. The agency and its backers are seeking support for a 30-year extension of the quarter-cent sales tax that largely funds operations.

The pitch to residents in the north county has been complicated, however, by the agency’s reluctance to state when it expected to extend service 5 miles north to Healdsburg, and then the next 17 miles to Cloverdale. But the unexpected release could help garner votes for Measure I, acknowledged Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, a member of the SMART board.

“There are people who tell me, ‘I support the train, but it may never get here, or at least not in my lifetime,’ and ‘The agency needs to show that it’s still willing to get here,’ ” he said. “So yeah, I think it could.”

The three city councils in northern Sonoma County — Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale — each have unanimously endorsed the sales tax renewal. All five of Sonoma County’s supervisors have also done so individually, as have the majority of Marin County’s board of supervisors.

SMART officials maintain that the possibility of getting to Healdsburg by 2024 relies on passage of Measure I, which needs a two-thirds majority on Tuesday to pass. The current quarter-cent tax expires in 2029 and without early renewal, the agency has said it will be forced to make deep cuts in service and to its workforce to cover rising debt costs tied to construction of the existing system.

Having the money to run service after an extension is finished is critical to making a grant proposal competitive, said Parker, the agency’s grants manager. SMART estimates the combined cost for operating to Healdsburg and Cloverdale is $4.7 million per year.

“The big one is: Can you afford to operate what you build?” Parker said. “If you can’t prove you can operate it, you won’t fare too well in a statewide competition.”

In the meantime, SMART is seeking tens of millions of dollars in state and federal money to build to Healdsburg, with the first response due back by April. To date, SMART has nearly doubled its $330 million in tax revenues over 11 years with $323 million in outside grants toward capital construction.

The Healdsburg extension’s big-ticket item has been the bridge that spans the Russian River, previously estimated at no less than $50 million. SMART now believes it can rebuild rather than replace the existing metal structure for about half the cost, projecting the total for the bridge, several safety improvements and station at $32 million.

The agency submitted a state rail grant application last month for $21 million toward the project and would add $11 million from a variety of other guaranteed funding sources in return for the windfall. The remaining costs to get to Healdsburg would be tied to construction of the track and safety communication system, plus about $70 million for both the rail yard and additional trains, for which Caltrans appears willing to help SMART secure in a separate state grant application due in June.

If successful, the result could be commuter trains running along 53 miles of rail line with 15 stations from Larkspur to Healdsburg within the next four years.

“That’s a scenario if all the stars align,” said Naujokas. “At first it doesn’t sound realistic, but hearing how bright those stars could potentially be, it’s not crazy. It’s not about just one city or one stop. It’s about connecting both counties and what it means for the ability of constituents in both counties to go places without getting in a car.”

SMART already has the $65 million it needs to fund the extension from its station near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to Windsor. The 3-mile expansion includes building another section of the 70-mile pathway for pedestrians and cyclists that was part of the tax measure approved in 2008. About 24 miles of the paved path are finished so far, with $78 million needed for the remaining segments, according to SMART.

A second station in Petaluma, on the north side of town, is also getting closer to breaking ground after a City Council approval last week helped push the $8 million project forward. If SMART finds the money for Healdsburg, that would leave only the extension to Cloverdale, which the agency estimates will cost $170 million, to complete the planned 70-mile rail line.

Caltrans may seek additional dollars for that last stretch from the $500 million pot of state money designated for solving congestion issues along California’s roadways. If funded, it could finally bring passenger trains to the Cloverdale depot that has been awaiting their arrival since 1999.

Caltrans officials contacted SMART earlier this month for more information about placing the project, as well as the northern sections of the paved pathway, on its short list of asks from the state, Parker said. California’s transportation agency also scheduled a tour last week of the northern rail corridor with SMART and representatives from Cloverdale to decide if it will submit the hefty financial request on SMART’s behalf.

No timeline exists for completing the line to Cloverdale, Parker said. But SMART is also considering a $25 million maximum request from a $1 billion federal fund toward transit. The grant program will provide half of its money for capital projects in rural areas across the country, and SMART’s extension from Healdsburg to Cloverdale would qualify.

“It’s still just a grant application, but it speaks to SMART’s commitment to heading north,” said Julia Gonzalez, spokeswoman for SMART. “Whenever grant opportunities come available, we’re tracking that and applying for those funds. If Measure I doesn’t pass, there’s a possibility we wouldn’t have the funding to operate the current system, but we need to keep going forth, and it’s our commitment to build this line north — all the way to Cloverdale.”

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

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