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SMART work progressing in Santa Rosa, expanding in Marin County

By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

With construction crews finishing track replacement work through Santa Rosa this month, officials at Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit are starting to plan for the final stages of the $360 million project that will link Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

So far, about 15 miles of track have been completed in Sonoma County, along with the repair or replacement of 25 road crossings and six bridges, work that was part of a $105 million package of contracts now nearing completion.

Workers dismantle the last of the railroad side tracks as the new SMART crossing is installed Tuesday at Seventh Street in Santa Rosa. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

Workers dismantle the last of the railroad side tracks as the new SMART crossing is installed Tuesday at Seventh Street in Santa Rosa. (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

Next, SMART plans to award up to $80 million in new contracts this spring, primarily to finish the southern end, from the Marin Civic Center to downtown San Rafael, but also to complete work in Sonoma County.

“The project is on schedule and on track,” spokeswoman Carolyn Glendening said this week.

The 39-mile commuter rail line is scheduled to begin operating late in 2015 or early 2016. The first train cars, under construction in Illinois, will be delivered early next year, enabling test trips on the new tracks.

Construction is under way as well at stations in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati. The new round of contracts will include building a new operations and maintenance facility in the north end of Santa Rosa.

Much of the work on the project involves tearing up and replacing old tracks. SMART officials say the new track will be less noisy and more environmentally friendly than traditional railroads. The noise will be reduced by using quarter-mile-long steel rails, meaning fewer joints to clatter under the wheels. Environmental damage will be reduced by replacing the traditional ties and road crossings, made of creosote-soaked wood, with concrete and steel.

The SMART project was largely funded by a 2008 ballot measure that imposed a one-quarter percent sales tax, approved by voters in the two counties. It has attracted a number of smaller state and federal grants as well, such as $9 million in federal funding to improve road crossings and another $19 million federal grant to add more rail cars and extend the line north of Guerneville Road to Airport Boulevard, where the new operation and maintenance yard will be.

“I would say from Sonoma County’s point of view, we’re seeing evidence that the sales tax money is being put to good use,” said SMART board member Jake Mackenzie, also a city council member in Rohnert Park.

In his own city, officials are hoping construction of the rail station will spur new interest in the vacant downtown property formerly occupied by State Farm Insurance.

“It’s a good project,” Mackenzie said.

Not everyone is as pleased with the rail system. In 2011, critics tried unsuccessfully to repeal the sales tax measure after SMART leaders said they could only pay for 39 miles of track, instead of the originally-planned 70 miles, in the face of rising costs and declining sales taxes. Officials still hope to build the full 70-mile project, which would have stretched from Cloverdale to Larkspur, but there is no funding available and no specific plans for when and how to finish it.

“If they try to come back to ask for another sales tax, there is going to be a huge fight,” said Clay Mitchell, one of the repeal organizers and now a director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, where he monitors SMART spending.

Mitchell said he is worried that SMART is using overly optimistic projections of construction costs and possible savings measures. He fears there might not be enough to complete even the shortened 39-mile project, which SMART calls Phase I, he said.

“We feel like the numbers they are giving to the public are stretching the truth at best,” he said.

SMART officials, however, say the financial picture is in fact getting better. Sales tax revenues, which sagged during the economic downturn, have rebounded. In 2012, SMART received $28.3 million in sales taxes, up $1.5 million, or about 5 percent, from the previous year. In just the first four months of the current fiscal year, the agency got about $10 million, suggesting an even stronger financial performance this year.

Glendening said critics of the agency have not been able to throw up any major roadblocks.

“People still have opinions about the project,” she said, “but it was approved by the voters and our mandate is to get it built.”

There have been some challenges and complaints about the project, but those have largely been local in nature. There have been legal disputes over acquiring small plots of private land to change road and driveway crossings, for example, and residents of Novato complained recently that SMART’s construction crews had cleared trees without notifying neighbors. General Manager Farhad Mansourian admitted to the board earlier this year that the agency had done a poor job communicating with the Novato neighbors and promised to do better in the future.

The system has a number of major projects still ahead of it, including the replacement of the aging bridge over the Petaluma River. Rather than rehab the existing bridge, which is more than 90 years old, SMART chose to buy an existing bridge across Galveston Bay in Texas, which was being replaced at the orders of the Coast Guard.

The bridge was cut into pieces and shipped by rail to Napa last summer, where it is being stored. It probably will be reassembled there and floated by barge to the bridge site, though SMART has yet to pick a contractor for the work, so some details remain uncertain.

The replacement bridge cost about $4 million and will take about $16 million to install. Rehabbing the old bridge would have cost at least that much and would probably have added only about 20 years of life, Chief Engineer Bill Gamlen said, making it more cost effective to buy the Texas bridge, which is only about 30 years old and is expected to last at least another 85 years.

“We looked at doing a very serious rehab” to the old bridge, he said, “but it looked like throwing good money after bad.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.





9 Responses to “SMART work progressing in Santa Rosa, expanding in Marin County”

  1. Train 101 says:

    It is great to see this money put to work! It will be nice when the train is finished! Thanks, Morgan H., for the train track locations!

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  2. Wilson says:

    Morgan H – Way to spin around the Larkspur station question. That’s because DUMB won’t admit that they have no real intention to build it. The primary goal of DUMB is to build houses near stations, not the train itself. There’s no place for more houses in that part of Larkspur.

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  3. BigDogatPlay says:

    The work is progressing. The rail gangs are soaking up millions of taxpayer dollars. Good for them. Hopefully some of that money will actually stay here and not be going to outside the state contracts with carpetbagged labor. Heavy rail construction is not a task the average local construction company knows anything about or can take on, after all.

    Now let’s get on with the real estate scam that we all, stupidly, voted for and get it over with. That is what SMART is really all about anyway.

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  4. Morgan H. says:

    You also asked “what about the larkspur station?”

    When complete, the SMART rail line will have 70 miles of track between Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County and Larkspur Landing in Marin County.

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  5. Morgan H. says:

    Concerning It’s Me’s comment….

    My father is a truck driver, one of the drivers who have had the pleasure of being called out to drop the ballast material. (big chunks of rock that support and distribute the weight of the train on the tracks.)

    So I can tell you EXACTLY where those 15 miles of track have been completed.

    They run from the outskirts of Petaluma, through downtown Penngrove, skirting Cotati, on through to Rohnert park passed the big water tank on Southwest Blvd. further on just past Roberts Lake, on into Santa Rosa, eventually and most recently ending just past Railroad Square.

    Any questions?

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  6. Its Me says:

    Just where is the so called 15 miles of track have been laid? And what about the station in Larkspur, what is going with that.

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  7. The Answer says:

    Some writing on this site seem to have come over from the dark side. Does the smart train make economic sense? Clearly no and everyone who looked seriously at the issue came to the same conclusion.

    But the real meaning of smart goes far beyond it just a political rail system. It is designed to alter the living and working patterns of the residents of Sonoma County.

    It never was intended as a true public transportation system like the bus system or our highway system. But at what a cost?

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  8. GAJ says:

    I will say that the concrete transitions for you to drive over the tracks are nice and smooth.

    Unlike the road itself which is patched, pock marked and bumpy.

    Here’s a link Mockingbird confirming everything that you say:

    “…as the U.S. General Accountability Office has shown, transit agencies can run bus services as fast and as frequent as any light-rail line at a fraction of the cost of light rail.”

    http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/light-rail-doesnt-work

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  9. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Some of this SMART train money needs to go to SR City Bus transit. If commuters can’t get to the train THEY WON’T TAKE THE TRAIN. There is no parking for commuters downtown. Just recently transit managers cut the routes and raised the rates causing great hardship for those who HAVE to take the bus. We commuters can always take our cars and I know several on my route who will now be driving to SF and Marin county because they can’t make their connections to GG downtown. All the managers making the decisions talked about at the public meetings and to the city council was PRODUCTIVITY, instead of ACCESSIBILITY, RELIABILITY, AND NECESSITY. They DID NOT MENTION THOSE WORDS AT ALL. Many people have no choice. There are people who work in my neighborhood who are in wheelchairs and they are now spending two hours getting to work or go to school because the bus route has been cut to every hour from every half hour. The bus is packed. The junior high kids aren’t riding anymore because they can’t catch their connection.

    Then there is the issue of age of the buses and them always breaking down. The city has a huge maintenance budget. SOMEONE should try to find a grant to buy new, energy saving buses.

    Without good transit systems that SMART train will have NO RIDERS. Anyone reading this should attend the city council meetings and demand a better transit system. Any disabled, elderly, student, or poor should unite on your bus route. Pick a city council meeting and show up enmass to complain about the transit system. Commuters too because we don’t take the bus just because of the unreliability and inaccessibility. The city council members are elected. If they can arbitrarily throw $100,000 dollars at researching the pedestrian safety of a SMART train crossing (after already spending a fortune studying it) then they certainly should be able to find the $500,000 needed to keep the routes every half hour.

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