By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Re-energized directors of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system unveiled a new slogan and train color scheme Tuesday in a presentation intended to bring north Sonoma County residents up to speed on the planned passenger service.
“There is a train coming to town” is the new slogan for the sleek, green-and-silver motorized train cars that are expected to be running by late 2015 or early 2016 between Marin and Sonoma counties.
Even though funding shortfalls have made it uncertain when the trains will reach Healdsburg, Windsor and Cloverdale, SMART is planning express bus service to link those communities with the train in Santa Rosa.
The delay of the train service didn’t seem to bother about 40 people attending the informational meeting in Healdsburg. They heartily applauded Cloverdale resident La Reva Myles’ impromptu a cappella rendition of “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie” and the refrain “Take me right back to the track, Jack.”
Tuesday’s meeting comes on the heels of the failure of SMART opponents to gather sufficient voter signatures to force an election to repeal the sales tax funding the train system. It also cleared the way for the district to accelerate plans for building the two-county rail line.
Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge, a SMART board member, described Tuesday’s program as part of an emphasis on public outreach by the SMART directors, a type of “speaker series” to service clubs, chambers of commerce and other groups.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there,” she said in an interview prior to the meeting at Healdsburg City Hall chambers. “This is a chance to take all 12 board members, to get out into individual communities, keep people updated and let them ask questions.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, SMART officials described commuter trains that at peak times will run every 30 minutes at speeds up to 79 mph. There will be less-frequent service on weekends.
When a quarter-cent sales tax was approved in 2008 by voters in Marin and Sonoma counties to fund SMART, the project was described as a 70-mile line with an accompanying bicycle and pedestrian path that would stretch from Larkspur to Cloverdale.
But the downturn in the economy and resulting sag in sales tax revenue resulted in a new plan — a system built in stages, starting with service from central San Rafael to north Santa Rosa at Guerneville Road.
That 38.5-mile segment is expected to be complete in about four years.
SMART directors say work is under way on the first phase, which within months will create 1,000 jobs in construction, engineering and surveying.
SMART officials are unwilling to say when train service might be extended to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
“Anything we say now is guessing,” Fudge said. “I’ve learned never to give a number.”
Prior to the meeting, SMART board member Carol Russell said it would not be 5 or 10 years before construction work begins to restore the rail line north of Santa Rosa.
“I’m saying it is two to three years,” she said. “I really and truly believe we are absolutely on track.”
Until trains run north of Santa Rosa, the plan is to have feeder buses take commuters from stations in Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale to waiting trains in Santa Rosa, and back.
Whether train service north of Santa Rosa will be built all at once, or in increments, also is unknown.
Whether it is possible to go all the way to Cloverdale at once depends in part on the economy, sales tax revenues or even a large federal grant, Fudge said.
She described SMART as “a nimble organization, extremely well organized. As the money comes in, we will be extremely creative to make sure it goes as far as it possibly can.”
One of the questions from the audience Tuesday was posed by retired math professor Warrin Watkins, who asked whether the aging railroad bridge over the Russian River in Healdsburg can handle the new trains.
“I know it has problems,” acknowledged Fudge, who said the fate of the bridge has not been determined. But knowing how much the community fought to keep the adjacent Memorial Beach bridge she said “I don’t want to be the one to tear down that bridge.”