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Perched precariously on lifts roughly 160 feet above the Petaluma River, iron workers Tuesday installed the final 13,000-pound piece of a reassembled bridge that is intended to be used by the North Bay’s new commuter rail line.

Next week comes the daunting challenge of tilting the 2.2-million-pound structure so that it sits horizontally over the river near the Highway 101 overpass at Lakeville Highway.

“Until then, it’s all on paper,” John Riley, the project engineer for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, said Tuesday as he watched the sky-bound crews labor to put the bridge’s remaining end piece in place.

The span, trucked to the Bay Area last year from its former home in Texas, represents one of the largest single infrastructure projects for SMART in its bid to overhaul more than 42 miles of railroad in the two counties for passenger service slated to start late next year.

Other obstacles for the rail agency remain, including a congressional feud over a federal road and highway spending bill that could jeopardize $20 million in funding for SMART’s planned link from downtown San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal.

Farhad Mansourian, the rail authority’s general manager, last week warned the agency’s board of directors that every transportation project in the nation is threatened by disagreements in the nation’s capital.

Nevertheless, Mansourian this week expressed cautious optimism that money for the Larkspur link will come through.

“I’m always worried until I see the check,” he said.

The funding and political battles shaping up behind the scenes in the corridors of power are in contrast to the visible progress being made on the commuter rail line.

SMART engineers are still kicking the wheels on two new rail cars the agency unveiled in April to a cheering crowd at the Cotati station. The cars, which cost $6.7 million, are being stored on a side track at Fulton Road and River Road north of Santa Rosa.

The installation of the new Petaluma River bridge is another high-profile development, one that’s drawn attention from motorists whizzing past on Highway 101. Standing upright, the bridge makes for an unusual sight.

The bridge formerly was used to move rail traffic along the Galveston Causeway in Texas. After purchasing the 30-year-old structure for $4 million, SMART had it torn apart and trucked to California, where it was partially reassembled at Mare Island in Vallejo.

The refurbished bridge was given three coats of paint, including the outer layer in SMART’s trademark green.

Known as a bascule drawbridge, it uses a counterweight to lift the “leaf,” or rail bed, into an almost vertical position. The drawbridge will open or close in about 110 seconds and reach about 157 feet into the air when fully raised.

Iron workers from across the Bay Area have been working on the bridge installation.

“It’s a real honor to build a project like this,” said Robert Lux, president and business agent of the Iron Workers Union Local 378.

For welder Naasson Parker, the bridge work has held special meaning. His father was a welder at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and Parker, who lives in Sacramento, attended high school in Healdsburg.

He said the bridge work has been on a “larger scale” than his previous jobs, in part because the welding had to meet strict standards for guarding against rust.

The work of lowering the bridge is scheduled for Monday. Riley said crews will use cables and pulleys to tip the structure and guide it into its footings. If all goes as planned, the bridge could be ready for rail traffic by mid-October.

The Texas span is replacing the Haystack bridge, which was manufactured in 1903 by the Pennsylvania Steel Co. and brought cross-country to Petaluma, where it was put in place a year later at its current location. Crews have about a two-week window to dismantle the old bridge and remove it to make way for the new span.

SMART sought interested parties for the historic bridge but after finding no takers is now planning to sell the structure as scrap metal. Riley estimated that could fetch around $25,000, which would be paid to the contractor that performed the demolition and haul-away.

SMART is aiming to begin commuter rail service late next year on a 42-mile segment from downtown San Rafael to north of Santa Rosa.

The agency is planning to operate seven two-car units along the route, with officials saying it will take under an hour to traverse.

The slope-nosed cars, called Diesel Multiple Units, run in pairs, with the ability to have a third car added in between to increase capacity. Each car has 79 seats, with standing room available for about 80 people. The cars also feature space for bicycles, Wi-Fi service and, in some cases, snack and beverage bars.

Funding for an additional 2.2-mile segment of the line from San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal was included in President Obama’s $4 trillion budget released in February. The $20 million in proposed funding through the Federal Transit Authority’s Small Starts program is to be added to an additional $20 million regional grant that was approved last year.

But that funding could fall apart depending on the outcome of the contentious and partisan debate in Congress over different versions of a federal transportation bill. Lawmakers in late July reached a deal to extend funding for road and highway projects for another three months, effectively delaying longer-term action until after Congress returns from the summer break.

Mansourian, who met with congressional and White House staffers in the nation’s capital in July, called the chances of Congress not funding the Larkspur rail link “very remote.”

Mansourian could not predict when the Larkspur link might come online should money for the project come through. He said it would be “shortly after” service started on the initial 42-mile segment.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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