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SMART rail costs rise, but so does length of line

By MATT BROWN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The 43-mile commuter rail line between Airport Boulevard just south of Windsor and downtown San Rafael will cost $427.9 million to complete, about $25 million more than the previous estimate three years ago, officials said. The increase in cost reflects a lengthening of the initial operating segment.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials hope to eventually extend the line even farther, to Larkspur on the south and Cloverdale on the north.

John and Pat Rich ride along the multi-use trail next to the SMART tracks, between 8th Street and College Avenue in Santa Rosa, for the first time on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

John and Pat Rich ride along the multi-use trail next to the SMART tracks, between 8th Street and College Avenue in Santa Rosa, for the first time on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

SMART general manager Farhad Mansourian on Wednesday presented the first estimate of the line’s cost since the rail authority board decided in 2011 to build it in phases because of the recession.

In 2008, voters in the two counties passed a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the entire project — a 70-mile Larkspur-Cloverdale line and an accompanying bike path.

The original estimate for the full project was $541 million, according to SMART’s July 2008 financial plan. By 2011, the estimated cost had risen to $695 million. Wednesday’s report put the project’s total cost at $657 million.

When the economy tanked and sales-tax revenues failed to meet expectations, the line was scaled back to 34 miles from downtown Santa Rosa to the Marin Civic Center at a cost of $403 million.

“In two years, we have come a long way and accomplished a lot,” Mansourian said. “We have been very successful at pursuing other funds.”

SMART so far has collected $125.3 million in sales-tax revenue, $180 million from bond proceeds and $122.6 million in grant funds, according to the report. The total revenue matches the cost of building the main segment from San Rafael to Airport Boulevard.

The rail authority still faces a $230 million shortfall to finish the rail line’s extensions — north to Cloverdale and south to Larkspur — and complete the bike path.

Mansourian said the agency expects to start train service in late 2016, two years later than originally predicted. The train cars, which were developed in Japan, are being assembled in Illinois and should be delivered in spring 2015, he said.

Critics said Wednesday that the rail authority’s report does not sufficiently plan for a possible future recession and does not identify funding for rail operations.

“The significant financial exposure of SMART is they don’t have sufficient funds under any scenario to operate trains they’ve touted, because of future recession impacts on sales-tax revenues,” said Mike Arnold, a Novato economist. “When the next recession occurs, they will have little choice but cut service and raise fares. They are putting their heads in the financial sand, not asking any hard financial questions for fear their analyses would generate answers they don’t want to hear.”

As the economy has improved, revenues have increased, said Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer. This has allowed the agency to pursue additional grant funding to extend the first phase of the line by nearly nine miles, to a total of 43.

McGrath said SMART has set aside $15-$18 million per year for operations. “We have enough money to run the trains,” she said. “We will run the trains.”

SMART board members expressed pleasure with the project update.

“I remember when we were trying to scrape pennies together to afford this thing,” said Mill Valley mayor Stephanie Moulton-Peters. “I’m happy to see there is additional revenue to build it.”

Mansourian said that construction crews this year will be working to rehabilitate the rail line north of Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa and south of Petaluma. On Tuesday, workers began building part of the pathway between Bellevue Avenue and Hearn Avenue in Santa Rosa.

Jim Eddie, who represents the Golden Gate Transportation District on the SMART board, said the pieces of the project are starting to fall into place.

“It’s not long ago we can remember the problems we had,” he said. “We’ve moved through this. It’s like a puzzle that goes together. We’ve done really well since the days we started.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

 





6 Responses to “SMART rail costs rise, but so does length of line”

  1. David says:

    A half a billion here, a half a billion there, pretty soon it will add up to real money!LOL

  2. Follower says:

    It’s getting harder & harder to focus disgust and anger toward the politicians.

    Every time I see an Obama bumper sticker it’s like a HUGE target, a middle finger to anyone with a non-union, public sector job, paying taxes.

    Yes, “I” am the reason you lost your health plan.

    “I” am the reason you can’t see the Doctor you have seen for years & years.

    “I” am the reason your deductable just went up by thousands of dollars.

    “I” am the reason you have to pay for fire protection even though your already excessive taxes were supposed to pay for it.

    “I” am the reason your children are going to spend their lives struggling to pay for all this.

    THAT’S what I see every time I see an Obama bumper sticker.
    …soon to be replaced with Hillary bumper stickers.

  3. Elephant says:

    After DUMB failed at the ballot box twice, they reduced the “estimated” cost, knowing full well that it was fictitious. They also knew that was the only way they could get it to pass. They even know that the 1/4% isn’t sufficient to pay the annual cost of running it.

    My predictions are that in 2016 DUMB will still be two years away from being operational. It will need that additional 1/4% on our sales tax. And the overall start-up cost cost will be nudging $1 billion. All for maybe 1,000 riders each day. Anyone wonder why I call it DUMB?

  4. Francis says:

    $25 million spent here and another $25 million spent there and so it goes with this make work social project, designed to change the way we live, work and play in Sonoma and Marin counties.

    The bridge and railroad on the river Kwai in World War II built with allied slave labor had a much shorter time frame.

    Oh what we could have done with all that money repairing and maintaining our roads.

  5. Papa ESoCo says:

    Shocked! Just shocked that The costs of the “dumb” train are rising. Well, they may be pushing for more length, but what is really being pushed is the day when a train finally runs on the tracks; pushed way into the future, that is.

  6. GAJ says:

    The length of the line has not increased which is what the headline states.

    “In 2008, voters in the two counties passed a quarter-percent sales tax to fund the 70-mile Larkspur-Cloverdale line and an accompanying bike path.

    The original estimate was $541 million, according to SMART’s July 2008 financial plan. By 2011, the estimated cost had risen to $695 million. Wednesday’s report put the project’s total cost at $657 million.”