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SMART finds rail service expansion to Napa and Solano counties would cost about $1 billion

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The SMART train could extend service east to Napa and Solano counties and connect to the national passenger rail system within six years. All it would take is about $1 billion.

That is the key takeaway from an 18-month study exploring the potential east-west train route along a portion of traffic-clogged Highway 37 in the North Bay.

The $500,000, state-funded review explored linking SMART’s existing Hamilton Station in Novato to Suisun City, where Amtrak operates a train station that offers regular daily round-trip service to Sacramento and the South Bay.

The study provides a first-ever blueprint and early cost estimate for an ambitious but still abstract project that would connect the Sonoma-Marin passenger line to the higher-volume Capitol Corridor, with links to Auburn and San Jose.

The 12-member SMART board received the study on Wednesday with cautious optimism. But representatives insisted they would not embark on such an eastward expansion before completing the 70-mile line between Larkspur and Cloverdale.

“It would be exciting for SMART to be able to connect to Amtrak. We don’t have another major connection like that. I think it would do a lot for us,” said board member Deb Fudge, Windsor’s vice mayor. “But I don’t want people to think that our plan would be to go east if we got this money from the state … before we went north. I don’t want people to misunderstand.”

Currently, the line’s northern terminus is a station located off Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa.

SMART has so far spent $569 million building out a 49-mile system, including future service to Larkspur and Windsor. To get to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, it expects to spend another $364 million — a new figure made public by the rail agency last week.

The state’s rail master plan calls for the Cloverdale station to be complete in 2027.

Extending the line east to Solano County, across the top of San Pablo Bay, would be a major expansion not foreseen in the 2008 quarter-cent sales tax measure that voters in Sonoma and Marin counties passed to fund SMART. The state rail plan released in late 2017 envisioned the eastward extension as part of a bid to widen and modernize rail service along existing alignments.

Prior studies on the future of Highway 37 also looked at the possibility of public transit, according to SMART officials.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown and his staff approached SMART and offered the funding for the expansion study, according to Fudge.

But SMART gets no direct tax money for operations from Napa and Solano counties, so without an expansion of its tax base it would have to rely on state funds to cover the construction of any line reaching east, agency officials said.

SMART owns about 25 miles of track running along Highway 37, a right-of-way that would serve the extension.

The study presented Wednesday focused on two alternatives, with costs ranging from $840 million to about $1.2 billion and buildout taking four to six years. Differences between the two options included the level of environmental mitigation, bridge and track work needed, the number of stations added between Marin and Solano counties, and type of passenger cars serving the route.

The recommended route would use existing tracks from Novato east over a refurbished Black Point Bridge before passing Sonoma Raceway at the Highway 37-Highway 121 interchange and proceeding toward Schellville. From there, the train would cross into Napa County and over the Brazos Bridge toward American Canyon, and then run adjacent to Highway 12 and past Cordelia to the Amtrak station in Suisun City near Fairfield.

The 41-mile journey would take 60 to 90 minutes each way based on the level of track improvements and the resulting speed limits. Stations could be added near Sonoma Raceway, at Schellville and near American Canyon at the Highway 29-Highway 12 interchange.

The cheaper of the two alternatives proposes starting with four daily round trips — two in the morning and two in the evening — to serve roughly 2,100 daily passengers. The more robust option would kick off with 10 round trips, also split between morning and evening, providing service for up to 5,400 passengers per day at launch.

Left out of the study were possible obstacles along the corridor, such as the real threat of sea-level rise along the San Pablo Bay front and the dilemma of what’s to be done long term to rebuild Highway 37.

SMART Chairman Gary Phillips, San Rafael’s mayor, and Vice Chairwoman Barbara Pahre, from the Golden Gate Bridge district, openly questioned the rationale of a $1 billion-plus rail extension to serve so few riders.

With Caltrans numbers showing an average of 42,000 vehicles per day on Highway 37, Pahre noted the 2,000 to 5,000 train riders “isn’t going to make a dent” on rush-hour bottlenecks.

“I don’t think this will solve Highway 37 congestion,” SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said in response. “During the peak hour, it removes those thousands of people, which then helps. This is giving you another option, and if you’re successful, you add more trains and more trips, because your infrastructure is in place.”

Upgrading the tracks and replacing the aging Black Point Bridge — built in 1911 to span the Petaluma River — would cost an estimated $40 million to $100 million depending on the approach. The analysis did not include a detailed ridership study to forecast how many passengers might take the route, though results of the initial review were already generating positive feedback from the state, Mansourian said.

“I think they’re very enthusiastic,” said Mansourian, acknowledging the state transportation agency has made no decision about funding the next phase of study, which would look more closely at engineering and environmental needs.

But Mansourian was clearly bullish on the prospect of an eastward move for SMART, which launched its north-south service only 19 months ago.

“Think about this: A transit system in under five years up and running using the existing right of way,” he said. “Tremendous. That’s just unheard of.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, voiced early support, despite not having seen the results of the study.

“Look, it just makes sense,” he said. “A vast majority of Marin County’s workforce is coming from out of county. Connecting to the greater SMART system is a commonsense approach for all involved. When a long-term Highway 37 fix is secured, SMART must be part of that solution.”

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and a SMART board member, touted the benefits of a parallel passenger rail line that could offer to travelers seeking to traverse from Novato to Vallejo across the top of San Pablo Bay.

Motorists currently spend up to 80 minutes in rush-hour traffic to get home each night from work, he said.

And many of those commuters — including area politicians, he noted — are frequently making the longer round trip to Sacramento.

“As we go forward, who knows what the alignments may be,” said Rabbitt. “But having this information now will build into what we’re doing in terms of trying to solve that transportation problem.

“And then the train to Sacramento can be made one way,” he quipped.

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

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