By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Trains could be delayed a year or more on the Santa Rosa-San Rafael commute rail line and the cost is now estimated to be $45 million more than anticipated, transit officials said Friday.
The agency may not get the regional, state and federal regulatory permits it needs to begin work next year in the wetlands, creeks and rivers the tracks traverse, according to a two-month financial review by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district.
“If you can’t get into those areas to work in April or May, you have lost a whole year” because of environmental limits, said Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer.
The beginning of train service, now scheduled for 2014, could be delayed by one to two years, Gamlen said.
Even though the total cost has risen to $380 million, money-saving measures and an uptick in sales tax revenue will more than offset the increase, said Fahrad Mansourian, Marin’s public works director, who is on loan to SMART as a temporary executive director.
A delay in operations would be the latest setback for the commute rail plan, which was approved by voters in Sonoma and Marin counties, along with a quarter-percent sales tax hike in 2008.
The measure promised a 70-mile line from Larkspur to Cloverdale. But declining sales tax revenues and a weak bond market forced the SMART board to downsize, settling for a initial 37-mile line from Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael.
The latest report comes six months after Lillian Hames stepped down as general manager, a position SMART now hopes to fill next month.
The new estimates of costs and revenues were developed in the past two months and result from having more information about actual construction costs, Mansourian said.
“We have moved from the conceptual stage to the design stage … we have more detail,” he said.
The results were released Friday to meet a deadline by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to qualify SMART for $10 million in funding from the MTC, $8 million from Transportation Authority of Marin and $3 million from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
“SMART with more detail is a balanced and fully funded project,” Mansourian said. “We are moving forward to issue construction bonds and request for bids for the first phase next month.”
SMART’s opponents remain critical of the project and skeptical of the increased cost and revenue estimates.
“I realize it is not an exact science to project these numbers, but it makes me really cautious to trust any projections going forward,” said Clay Mitchell of Windsor, a member of Repeal SMART.
Mitchell is also critical of any delay in the beginning of service.
Delaying service would save $12 million a year in operating costs, but voters will not get the transit service they are paying for and putting money meant for operations into construction seems unfair, Mitchell said.
SMART had estimated it would cost $335 million to build the first segment from Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael and would have enough money to pay for it, with the additional MTC, Marin and Sonoma county funds.
MTC had asked SMART to reaffirm by Wednesday that the costs had not risen.
Now that the cost has now gone up to $380 million, the regional planning agency said it wanted assurances that the SMART project is fully funded.
“We deal with these projects, and costs move around, usually upward,” said Randy Rentschler, MTC’s manager of legislative and public affairs. “We care a lot less about what the final price is. What we care about is it is fully funded, what we care about is to get something delivered.”
The major cost increase of $26million comes from the higher pricetag for signal and communications equipment. A train control system required by new federal regulations allows trains to be tracked and controlled from a central operations facility.
However, Mansourian said that while the technology is required by the Federal Railroad Administration, it has not yet been developed.
Other rising costs include $11million more for a maintenance facility, $10 million in engineering and professional services, $4million for the San Rafael line, $2.8 million for track quiet zones, $1.6 million in tracks and bridges,and $750,000 for service vehicles and trucks.
Additional expenses come from adding equipment and construction that had been deferred in earlier cost-cutting. They include $4.3 million for a fare collection system, $3.4 million for closed-circuit TV and $5 million to rebuild the Novato Creek Bridge. SMART directors had deferred those items.
The newly found savings and revenues come from a variety of sources.
They include saving $4.5 million by building simpler stations, $6 million by eliminating a second set of tracks at stations, and $10 million by working with the North Coast Railroad Authority to restrict freight service during track construction.
SMART also saves $5 million by reducing its inflation factor, and $10.2 million by reducing its contingency fund by 5 percent.
And the agency is increasing its sales tax forecast to 4 percent, increasing revenue by $22 million.
The report and recommendations go the SMART board on Aug. 17.
David Heath, SMART chief financial officer, said the sale tax forecasts and other financial assumptions will be reviewed by several analysts, including Robert Eyler, director of Sonoma State University’s Regional Center for Economic Analysis.