Thursday, January 21, 2010

SMART commuter train plan delayed by economy

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It's unlikely the SMART rail line linking Sonoma and Marin, Calif., counties will be finished by 2014 as promised to voters because the agency running the train project is wrestling with a $155-million shortfall brought on by a stumbling economy, the Contra Costa Times reports.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District officials reported at a meeting at San Rafael City Hall that they would likely have to build the line in two segments. The first segment, which would be finished by 2014, would extend from Larkspur north to somewhere in Sonoma County.

The precise terminus will still have to be determined, but SMART General Manager Lillian Hames said it could be anywhere from Petaluma to northern Santa Rosa.

"We will know better after we have the cost estimates come in this summer," Hames said.

The agency will then have to seek federal money to pay for the rest of the line, north to Cloverdale. If it is successful, the rest would then be ready by 2016.

"We need to work with our D.C. lobbyists," said San Rafael Mayor Al Boro, a SMART board member. "We need to do all we can to make this happen."

In November 2008, voters approved Measure Q, which increased the sales tax by a quarter-cent in Marin and Sonoma counties for the next 20 years to help pay for the $1.1-billion total project cost over two decades. The struggling economy has hurt the rail plan by reducing the amount of sales tax revenue to finance the project by about nine percent. It also has created a poor bond market. SMART had hoped to borrow $300 million based on stable sales tax revenue, but with less money coming in its ability to borrow capped at $200 million. That, in addition to the lower revenue, has put the agency about $155 million short.

Another option to pay for the project would be to use the sales tax dollars as they become available, but under that scenario the line would not be finished until 2021.

Federal money will not be simple to come by. SMART first must convince the Metropolitan Transportation Commission - the Bay Area's transportation planning agency - to give it "priority" status to allow the rail agency to apply for federal funding. Even if that occurred, there would be no guarantee the agency would get the money because other agencies around the country vie for the same pot of cash.

SMART officials believe they are in a good position, however, because a majority of the project is being paid for with local dollars.

Ironically, although the rail measure passed in 2008 enjoyed less support in Marin, the county would see its segment built on time under the current plan. That is because SMART has already spent funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission on the Cal Park Hill Tunnel project to link San Rafael and Larkspur. SMART officials fear if they mothballed the project, the agency would be less likely to give SMART the priority status it seeks.

Construction of the entire 70-mile rail line was scheduled to occur between 2011 and 2014. Stations in Marin will include Larkspur near the ferry terminal, downtown San Rafael, the Civic Center, Hamilton and in Novato near Highway 101. An adjacent bike and pedestrian path will also be built, but over a longer period.

SMART's Cloverdale representative, Carol Russell, who is mayor, said she understood her city might have to be cut out of the initial segment.

"We need to hang together on this," she said. "This is not a north versus south issue."

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