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Congress on track to approve SMART funding for Larkspur ferry link

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The planned rail link to a Marin County ferry terminal, envisioned as a key part of a new SMART passenger rail service set to debut in 2016, appears to have secured the funding it needs to advance.

Congress is expected to approve a $1.1 trillion federal spending bill as early as Friday morning that includes $20 million for the rail link from downtown San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal.

Officials with the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority had been working with regional partners for three years to acquire the federal funding, which adds to $20 million already secured for the Larkspur project through local toll money.

“The extension from San Rafael to Larkspur is going to happen. That’s a big deal for the system,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Connecting rail passengers to regional transportation hubs is a critical component of the SMART project, which initially is set to debut in late 2016 along a 42-mile segment from near the Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael.

The 2.2-mile Larkspur link would come online one year to 18 months after the passenger service starts, according to Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager. In the interim, rail passengers will be bused from San Rafael to the ferry terminal and vice versa.

Mansourian acknowledged that the costly, relatively short Larkspur link might not appear to be a labor-intensive project. But he said the extensive design and construction work calls for rebuilding the entire rail line along that stretch, including a challenging at-grade crossing at Andersen Drive in San Rafael and two creek crossings.

“While the mileage doesn’t sound like much, the project is complex,” he said.

The project also has to go through a lengthy federal process before contracts can be awarded for the work, Mansourian said.

The $20 million in federal funding comes from President Barack Obama’s budget request of $353 million to fully fund nine projects in the Federal Transit Authority’s Small Starts program. That included a $20 million request for the Larkspur link.

The House of Representatives endorsed that allocation. But the Senate’s version of the spending bill provided only $30 million for the entire Small Starts program.

However, the final draft version of the bill included all of the funding. Congress is expected to vote on the measure Friday morning.

“Clearly, this is a really good thing,” said Rohnert Park Vice Mayor Jake Mackenzie, a member of both the SMART board and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which provided the toll funding.

SMART already has begun testing the slope-nosed rail cars along refurbished track in Sonoma and Marin counties. The cars 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.

The rail agency is planning to operate seven two-car units along the route, which officials say will take under an hour to traverse. Officials estimate 5,000 riders a day will use the service, and the agency has planned to operate trains every half-hour during peak commute times, in addition to a midday train and weekend service.

Mansourian on Thursday said ridership is likely to benefit from the addition of the Larkspur link. He did not have firm numbers.

He said having connections to regional transportation hubs at both the southern and northern ends of the first phase of the rail project will benefit both commuters and tourists who will use the service.

Mansourian said his next focus is on extending the passenger service north to the town of Windsor. He did not offer a timeline nor a potential funding source for the project.

“Unfortunately, getting public works money takes a while, but we’re going to be on top of it,” he said. “That’s my next commitment. How do we get there, and how fast can we do it?”

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

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