SMART Train Construction Is on Track

After several years of obstacles, construction of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) train is moving full speed ahead. Initial work is underway, with construction crews overhauling 38.5 miles of existing track between Santa Rosa and San Rafael for commuter rail service as early as 2015.

Construction “marks a transition from [SMART being] an agency engaged in planning, budgeting, and fundraising to one that is actually digging in the dirt and producing visible signs of improvement,” said Steve Birdlebough, advocacy chair for Friends of SMART, a North Bay citizen’s group.

When all is said and done, SMART is expected to lower traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, help rejuvenate the economy, and create a better sense of community between the two counties. The rail system is anticipated to carry between 5,000 and 6,000 commuters a day.

“We think of SMART as a community railroad, and look at this as infrastructure that will improve the quality of life,” said Matt Stevens, community outreach coordinator at SMART.

To reach that goal, SMART officials have been busy this spring. The agency completed the sale of $199 million in bonds in early May to help fund construction of the rail line and bridges, as well as buy 12 diesel train cars. The sale also subsidizes the accompanying pedestrian pathway that links Marin and Sonoma counties. Meanwhile, SMART purchased an operations and maintenance facility near the Sonoma County Airport for $2.7 million.

“SMART is feeling really good about where things are right now,” Stevens said.

But activity hasn’t always been smooth. In 2008, the project got a kick-start when 70 percent of voters in the two counties approved a 20-year, one-quarter-cent sales tax to fund SMART. But shortly after the vote, the U.S. economy began tanking, putting a damper on revenue. Meanwhile, SMART began to face higher-than-expected costs for the project.

Later, the agency was challenged by a repeal effort from critics who said SMART’s original plans had changed and shouldn’t be backed by taxpayer dollars. However, the effort failed to gather sufficient signatures this winter to bring the issue to the ballot.

“Everyone who was supporting the train breathed a sigh of relief when the opponents couldn’t get enough signatures,” Birdlebough said.

One thing the down economic climate did signal was the need to spread out the project in phases. The first phase includes eight stations, beginning with Railroad Square in Santa Rosa and ending in downtown San Rafael. In between will be stations in Rohnert Park, Cotati, downtown Petaluma, two in Novato (North and South), and another in San Rafael at the Marin Civic Center. Phase II includes Cloverdale, Healdsburg, Windsor, the Larkspur Ferry,  and additional stations in Santa Rosa (near the Coddington shopping center) and Petaluma (off Corona Road).

In early May, equipment and materials arrived at Railroad Square, or the “yard,” which has been set up as a construction staging area, storing about 90,000 railroad ties. Initial work in Santa Rosa included locating underground utilities, followed by drainage repair and replacement of culverts and retaining walls.

SMART is also holding meetings — the latest in Cotati — to update residents as crews ready to rebuild the existing Northwestern Pacific Railroad right-of-way from the ground up. Track reconstruction is set to begin in mid-to-late June. It’s estimated the contractor can construct about 1,600 feet of track per week.

“The idea is to inform [residents that] construction is beginning and there will be dust and noise,” Stevens said. “We’ll do everything in our power to minimize it.”

Capital costs for Phase I are estimated at $360 million. In addition to bond proceeds, SMART will rely on federal funding, bridge tolls, and sales tax revenue, among other sources.

SMART cannot provide estimates on the cost of Phase II, which covers roughly 70 miles, Stevens said. Phase II costs “depend on the year of delivery and a number of other unknown factors,” he added. The plan is to add the northern extensions as additional funding is identified.

Funding aside, excitement is the train of thought among transit advocates and operators in Marin and Sonoma counties. They are thinking about long-range plans for the areas that surround the 14 SMART stations. That includes the potential for mixed-use housing in areas such as Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, Stevens said, but noted he wasn’t aware of any development plans currently on the table. Another focus is the need to re-route buses and get stations up to snuff for all kinds of users.

For example, local transit agencies may adjust their bus schedules and routes to better coordinate with SMART once it’s running.

“It’s exciting that construction is starting,” said Richard J. Marcus, transit planner for the city of Santa Rosa. “But to be honest, it’s too preliminary to do any adjustments on our service. SMART still has to develop its operations plan, which would be a schedule of its train.”

Mary Currie, Golden Gate Transit’s spokesperson, also echoed that it’s too early to know specifics. “We are coordinating with SMART and will continue to do so,” she said in an e-mail.

The rough idea is that SMART will structure its timetable around commute hours, from about 4:30 to 8:30 in the morning, and then 4:30 to 8:30 or 9 in the evening.

“But we don’t have a timetable worked out, and this is subject to change,” Stevens said.

Another area of budding interest centers on station improvement. Rocky Birdsey, system change advocate at the Marin Center for Independent Living, said he wants SMART and city of San Rafael officials to be aware of necessary safety enhancements, citing the need to widen sidewalks and eliminate trip hazards at the downtown San Rafael station.

“The construction of the station improvements will be a part of a future contract and will be completed in time for the start of revenue service,” said Stevens, noting he could not provide specifics at this time.