SMART received a welcome surprise Thursday: $21 million in state funding to extend commuter rail service to Windsor, more than a third of the money it needs to connect to Sonoma County’s fourth-largest city.
The remaining money, however, hinges upon the outcome of a regional ballot measure that will be decided by voters in all nine Bay Area counties in June.
When fully completed, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system is intended to carry riders beyond the Town of Windsor to the cities of Healdsburg and Cloverdale in the north. Thursday’s announcement — an infusion of gas tax dollars through Senate Bill 1 — now makes that a greater possibility, according to SMART officials.
“We didn’t expect this today,” said Windsor Councilwoman Debora Fudge, who is also chairwoman of SMART’s 12-member board. “That’s how it works with the feds and the state, and you don’t know until it’s official. And then you move quickly, so we’re very excited.
“It’s a very good day for the three cities in the north county,” she added.
The funding from the California State Transportation Agency comes from a pot of money for transit projects to ease congestion and reduce Californians’ reliance on automobiles. The program will help the state meet climate and air-quality goals that seek to eliminate more than 32 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a state transportation agency spokeswoman.
As recently as 2016, the Windsor connection was projected to cost $38 million and open in early 2020. Today, the project to upgrade approximately 3 miles of existing tracks is expected to cost about $55 million, with no set date in place for construction to begin.
SMART officials will now seek additional funding to begin the project, which is expected to take roughly two years once shovels get into the ground.
Regional Measure 3, which would increase Bay Area bridge tolls gradually over the next seven years to raise $4.45 billion, will go before voters in June. If approved, SMART would receive an additional $40 million — enough to complete the Windsor extension, and then some.
Any remaining funds will be used to improve existing rail tracks farther to the north, a SMART spokeswoman said Thursday.
Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Thursday’s news follows the announcement earlier this month of a $22.5 million Federal Transit Administration grant to help SMART extend service south in Marin County from San Rafael to Larkspur. Construction of the 2.1-mile, $55.4 million leg is already underway and is expected to be finished by the end of 2019.
Local officials lauded the new funding stream for SMART’s northern section as the product of considerable partnership.
“This has really been an all-hands-on-deck effort working with the SMART board to be able to secure the $21 million, and we’re grateful,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “This is a significant down payment to connecting the Town of Windsor to the rest of the system, but there’s still work to do.”
Fudge and fellow SMART board member Jake Mackenzie shared hope the initial chunk of money for the Windsor line would encourage voters to pass Regional Measure 3. So far, they said, polling has shown favorable reception for the ballot measure, which would raise tolls at seven state-owned toll bridges in the Bay Area to fund road improvements and mass transit projects. SMART’s Windsor extension could be one of the first to take advantage. Fudge said it can’t start soon enough for the residents she represents.