The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board of directors Wednesday authorized spending $24 million to launch the next, highly anticipated phase of railwork needed to extend commuter train service north to Windsor.
The unanimous board decision represents a major expansion geared toward fulfilling the promise made in 2008, when voters approved a two-county, 70-mile line stretching from Cloverdale to Larkspur.
The SMART board approved the spending with two 12-0 votes, setting in motion rail safety upgrades and design work needed to expand the rail line north by 3 miles from the current northbound terminal near the Sonoma County Airport.
The work is set to begin this fall, with heavy construction in 2020 and system testing in 2021. Agency officials said SMART could start serving Windsor, with a population of 27,000, by late 2021 or early 2022.
“This one is a special item,” SMART board chairwoman Deb Fudge, a longtime Windsor councilwoman, said before the votes. “It’s the next step to Cloverdale. There better not be any opposition.”
The largest expense among four contracts approved Wednesday totaled $15.7 million.
It covers work by Colorado-based Modern Railway Systems to build the train and station communications and grade crossing control systems. The contractor is presently assisting with similar work on SMART’s Larkspur extension in Marin County.
“This contract utilizes the significant investment we’ve made in our system,” Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer, said in his presentation. “We feel it’s really important and critical to our system to go forward with MRS on this.”
The three other contracts, with an engineering firm and two consultant groups, will begin design and environmental permitting processes.
Initial survey and soil analysis are part of that work, as are wildlife habitat and tree studies to get applications underway for submission to federal and state environmental regulators.
“Permitting is a huge factor for any large capital project these days,” said Gamlen. “It can go fast, or it can really take a long time. So it’s a little early for, ‘Hey, we’ll start revenue service in March of 2022,’ but that’s generally what our schedule will be.”
Including future track and bridge construction, the Windsor extension is estimated to cost $55 million. SMART has the project fully funded through several sources. The final piece of money came in April, when the state awarded SMART roughly $20 million in new gas tax dollars.
The remaining funding includes a $5 million federal grant for the high-tech train control system and $30 million in forthcoming Bay Area bridge toll increases approved by the region’s voters in June. The Windsor extension will also include a park-and-ride lot, bicycle and pedestrian pathway and a station platform.
However, a successful repeal of California’s new gas tax by voters in November would unravel a major part of the funding package and could stall the project.
Furthermore, a court challenge of the Bay Area bridge toll measure by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association threatens SMART’s share of that transit funding.
“We received that lawsuit, and we are contesting it,” said SMART board member Jake Mackenzie, who serves on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that oversees state bridge tolls in the Bay Area. “We have not had any form of restraining order issued against us.”