There's a fresh question to ask detractors of the commuter rail project being built in Marin and Sonoma counties:
If there were a connection between the Santa Rosa station and the Santa Rosa airport, would that make the line more useful to you?
It's a valid question now because that's what is in the plans.
On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission finalized a $12.5 million award in regional transportation funding for Phase 1 of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit project, and that cash is going toward a four-mile extension from the North Santa Rosa station to the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport area. The allotment was approved by the MTC board.
Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who represents West Marin and the western parts of Novato, is Marin's representative on the MTC board. He said the grant covers most of the $15.5 million project to link SMART with the airport.
Wednesday's vote comes after the Sonoma County Transportation Authority committed to spend $6.6 million for an additional train set to serve the extension to the airport and northern Santa Rosa stations. Kinsey said the MTC agreement requires SMART to put up to an additional $2.4 million into the extension project if there are savings during construction of the initial operating segment from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.
"This is a significant investment opportunity for SMART, allowing the rail system to serve a growing regional airport along the line," Kinsey said.
The airport, which has two runways, is amid a major expansion as it attempts to serve more North Bay customers. A year ago, the County of Sonoma Board of Supervisors approved certification of the environmental impact report and approved the airport's master plan, which includes adding about 1,000 feet to the main runway.
Alaska Airlines is the major carrier and offers daily flights, but the airport also serves air cargo, private and corporate flights, military, search and rescue, firefighting, law enforcement and pilot training. The airport is owned by the County of Sonoma and operated by the Department of Transportation and Public Works.
State Sen. Noreen Evans, who represents Marin and southern Sonoma counties, said in a release that it is critical for residents in the North Bay to have connections to airports as well as regional and state passenger rail networks.
“MTC’s grant to SMART is an instrumental investment in meeting our immediate objectives while also moving our communities closer to the rest of California’s 21st century transportation systems,” she said in the release.
Kinsey said the Santa Rosa extension is expected to increase ridership because of the airport connection as well as the high-employment job center close to the airport. He said this parlays well with the state Legislature's vote last year to commit funds to match a federal high-speed rail grant for a system that will link the southern and northern halves of the state.
"While that line doesn’t come close to the North Bay, the politics associated with getting the deal approved by the Legislature certainly lubricated this funding commitment," Kinsey said. "So, you could say this is our piece of California’s HSR program."
The SMART rail line project has been in the works for more than a decade but didn't get its primary funding jolt until 2008 when Marin and Sonoma county voters approved a sales tax increase to support the passenger train. The costs are expected to exceed $300 million.
In January 2012, SMART fended off a grassroots campaign to cut its local sales tax funding by detractors that said it was a waste of taxpayer dollars, that scant few people would use the system and that the authority was being mismanaged. More pointedly, the opposition said voters approved a system from Cloverdale to Larkspur, not the Phase 1 project between Santa Rosa and San Rafael that is being constructed today. SMART contends that funding will be secured to complete the Cloverdale-to-Larkspur line.
SMART is set up to be an alternative to Highway 101 traffic between Santa Rosa and San Rafael. In the first phase, Novato will get one station in Hamilton and one off North Redwood Boulevard on the north side of town; San Rafael will get one at the Marin Civic Center and another at the downtown transit area. The second phase of the project includes plans to extend the line north to Cloverdale and south to Larkspur.
Evans worked to coordinate local efforts to secure SMART funding and in November made a formal request to MTC urging consideration for investments in expanding both north to the Sonoma County Airport and south to Larkspur, where a heavily used ferry terminal exists. MTC’s programing and allocations committee recommended the fund approval in early January and the full board provided final approval at its meeting Wednesday.
MTC said the SMART extension will enhance the system's productivity and efficiency by linking a growing regional airport and a major employment center via the same section of track that will serve SMART’s Operations & Maintenance Facility, according to Evans' release. It also leverages the investment made recently by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority to fund additional vehicles that make the system capable of offering regular service to additional stations.
“The timing of these funds allows us to expand the reach of Phase 1 in tandem with our 2013 construction packages,” stated SMART board chair Judy Arnold, a Marin County Supervisor who represents Novato. “The grant provides $12.5 million in additional regional funding while requiring a relatively modest local match, and is just one example of how SMART is working to leverage every local taxpayer dollar to the fullest as we deliver the rail and pathway project.”
Arnold said SMART is "incredibly appreciative" of Evans’ efforts on behalf of taxpayers and the commitment she has shown to an expansion to Larkspur as well.
The SMART train and pathway project is under construction and will provide a new regional transportation backbone with improved transit options for all North Bay residents. The first set of railcars is due to arrive in Sonoma County for testing in the third quarter of 2013, SMART said.
State Senator Noreen Evans represents the Second Senatorial District, including all or portions of the Counties of Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma. Senator Evans Chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary and is the outgoing Chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.