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North Bay Passenger Rail Gains Ridership, Cash, Momentum

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has had a good week. Two major financial wins will give the system millions of dollars to come and its ridership continues to rebound, with two days seeing the highest ridership rates since COVID began.

People wait on a platform to board a BART train
Passengers wait for delayed westbound trains at the Walnut Creek BART station after a kink in the rail truncated train traffic, Sep. 6, 2022, in Walnut Creek, Calif.
(Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
(TNS) — In seven days, the North Bay's passenger rail system received a sudden avalanche of $74 million for a long-stalled effort to bring the train tracks north to Healdsburg.

The first boon came last week, when the California Supreme Court dismissed a long-running lawsuit from a tax advocacy group, freeing up Bay Area bridge toll dollars that includes $40 million for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit.

Then, on Monday, Jan. 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $2.5 billion in funding grants for transportation, including more than $34 million to SMART.

"It's been incredible," SMART director Eddy Cumins told The Press Democrat in an interview Wednesday.

"It feels like SMART has so much momentum right now," he said.

The funding wins come, Cumins said, as ridership continues to rebound from the pandemic. Last Friday and the following Monday saw the highest ridership for those weekdays since COVID-19 ground public transit to a halt.

SMART is outstripping other public rail systems in the Bay Area at recovering ridership, according to Metropolitan Transportation Commission data Cumins presented at a Jan. 18 meeting of the passenger rail's board of directors.

SMART has recovered 79 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership levels, according to those numbers, the second highest among all Bay Area public transit systems, including buses.

Bay Area Rapid Transit, which feeds commuters to San Francisco, has only recovered 40 percent of its riders, according to the MTC data.

"Ridership is bouncing back and funds are rolling in," said Cumins, who took the helm of the North Bay passenger train in November 2021.

Suddenly, 16 years after voters approved a rail line that was supposed to stretch from Larkspur to Cloverdale, major construction again looms on the horizon. SMART has not opened a new segment since the train reached Larkspur in 2019.

But the work on the next segment, from SMART's northern terminus near the Santa Rosa airport to a station three miles north in Windsor, has been stalled ever since the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued to stop the distribution of money from a toll hike Bay Area voters approved in 2018.

The state Supreme Court dismissed that lawsuit Jan. 25.

But, Cumins said Sonoma County residents shouldn't expect construction to begin quite yet. The railroad agency has applications for three other large grants pending.

If successful, that will pull another $113 million into SMART's coffers, covering the costly $230 million expansion to Healdsburg.

Cumins has urged the board to wait until June, when SMART staff expect to have received word on all three grants, before beginning construction. Having all the funding to reach Healdsburg in hand will allow SMART to secure contractors at "economies of scale," rather than offering piecemeal bids for contracts, Cumin said.

Doing so should lower costs, he said.

"It's an expensive project," Cumins said, "you've got the rail, you've got bridges and creek crossings and you've got the major bridge across to Healdsburg."

SMART will have to replace an aging railroad bridge across the Russian River into the center of town.

In August 2021, the U.S. Congress approved President Joe Biden's massive infrastructure spending bill, setting the federal government up to spend more than $1 trillion, much of it dedicated to transportation.

"There's more funds out there today for transit and infrastructure then there's probably been in my lifetime," Cumins said.

The wins for SMART come nearly three years after voters rejected the railroad's ask for an early extension of the sales tax measure that funds its operations. That difficult blow means the sales tax will expire in 2029 if railroad backers can't convince voters to approve an extension beforehand.

When that vote occurred in March 2020, SMART officials had said the line would reach Windsor by late 2021. The lawsuit put a stop to that goal.

Now, with funds flowing in, Cumins said that with full funding the railroad will reach Windsor sometime in 2025 or 2026 and Healdsburg within a year after that.

(c)2023 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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