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SMART train seeks more federal money

A model of the planned SMART train.

PD File
Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 6:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 6:50 p.m.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials are seeking $6.6 million in federal funds to buy more train cars, money that otherwise would be used for local pedestrian and bicycle paths.

“SMART is committed to go to Cloverdale and to Larkspur and as you go farther, you need more vehicles,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager.

SMART's request is drawing fire from bicycle advocates because the rail agency would be taking the lion's share of $9.9 million that Sonoma County is getting for such projects as bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, traffic lights, Safe Routes to Schools programs and even construction of SMART's own pedestrian and bicycle path.

“It would mean that most jurisdictions would have to put off implementing most of their bike-pedestrian plans for five years, at least,” said Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

The coalition has been a staunch supporter of SMART but is strongly opposing this bid.

“We don't understand how it makes sense for one train set to take two-thirds of the funding for the entire network,” Lupien said.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority board, made up of representatives from the county's nine cities and the county Board of Supervisors, will make a decision Monday on SMART's request.

Four of the authority's 12 members also sit on the SMART board: County Supervisor Valerie Brown, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane, Rohnert Park Mayor Jake Mackenzie and Cloverdale Councilwoman Carol Russell.

Sonoma County has been allocated $9.9 million in federal money for congestion mitigation/air quality, meant primarily to fund pedestrian and bicycle projects.

The Transportation Authority has received requests totaling $38 million from the cities and county for the funds, including the Cloverdale Greenway, landscape improvements along Santa Rosa Avenue and Third Street in Santa Rosa, the Mark West Creek Trail, Windsor bike paths and lanes and Safe Routes to Schools programs throughout the county.

The proposals are being evaluated by the Transportation Authority. A recommendation for funding will be made next year to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's regional planning agency.

SMART wants the county Transportation Authority to endorse its request now, ahead of all the other proposals, to meet a year-end deadline for buying the new cars at the current price.

SMART is buying six, two-car train sets from Nippon Sharyo USA, which is building them at its Rochelle, Ill., plant, for $40 million. The first train is scheduled to arrive next October.

If SMART orders the additional cars by the end of the month, the trains would be built at the same time as the current order, said Seana Gause, county Transportation Authority project analyst.

“Once the trains are completed, they retool the machinery for other trains,” Gause said. “There is a large order from Chicago. SMART's request would go to the end of the line. They probably would not get the trains in time for when they start service and they wouldn't get the same price.”

Alongside this request is one being made on SMART's behalf by state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. She is asking the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to allocate $10 million to $15 million to rebuild the rail line from Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa to Airport Boulevard, where SMART is building an operations and maintenance facility.

SMART currently is rebuilding the rail between Guerneville Road and downtown San Rafael for passenger train service scheduled to start in early 2016.

The current track from Guerneville Road to Airport Boulevard is built for freight service and could be used to run SMART passenger trains to the facility at slow speeds.

Because that track eventually will have to be upgraded to passenger-train standards, rebuilding it now gets SMART closer to extending service to Windsor, which is next on its priority list.

Rebuilding the rail raises the possibility of building a train station at Airport Boulevard, which could serve the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and workers in the surrounding business park.

That would require the SMART board to change its policy because an Airport Boulevard station is not part of current plans.

“The board has not made a decision to put a station at the airport; that is not in the game plan,” said Brown, chairwoman of the SMART board. “If we are already going to have cargo going up there, why not upgrade that track now?”

(You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.)

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