Making good on his promise to upgrade America's transportation infrastructure, President Barack Obama included $20 million for the North Bay SMART train in his 2016 budget released this week.
Those sounds of gushing approval you might have heard this week reflected a collective gasp of gratitude from lawmakers and policy junkies up and down the North Bay who support this project. The SMART project aims to eventually put choo-choo moves from Larkspur to Cloverdale. For now, workers are laying tracks from San Rafael to the Sonoma County Airport, to the taxpayer-funded tune of $430 million.
Congress has to approve the Obama budget. The $20 million is earmarked to extend the rail-bed from San Rafael south to Larkspur. His proposal would fund the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) system from the Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant program, according to the Petaluma-based SMART folks.
Here's the skinny, according to a press release and a follow-up conversation with SMART spokesman Farhad Mansourian: The Transportation Authority of Marin had "recommended $11 million toward the $40 million downtown San Rafael to Larkspur extension project."
That amount was jacked to $20 million by the Bay Area regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which then "urged the Secretary of Transportation to fund the remaining amount."
U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman's office says the North Bay lawmaker— who was just named to the house Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure—talked with Secretary Anthony Foxx and pushed the SMART project.
Mansourian says the San Rafael to Sonoma County Airport phase will be opening up in late 2016 for passenger service.
But what about those congressional Republicans who have already declared the Obama budget dead on arrival for its declaration of "class warfare" against their corporate backers?
Mansourian says the GOP has said they support infrastructure upgrades, and that $20 million out of a budget of $4 trillion is rather a drop in the bucket. They're not going to fight to "balance the budget on $20 million," he says. "This is not where the fight is going to be; it's going to be on the big issues," such as Obama's plan for free community college.
"Remember that what is significant about the SMART project is that it is paid for by taxes from Sonoma and Marin. The federal government is putting in a very small amount," says Mansourian.
The beauty of the Larkspur extension, he says, is that "we'd be connecting the regional ferry to the Sonoma County Airport." This would be a boost for tourism, and for commuters who have to sweat the 101 congested corridor.
The political class in Larkspur, he adds, is on board with the ferry linkup. "The mayor of Larkspur, last summer wrote a letter of support for us," says Mansourian.
The proposed stops on the railroad are as follows: the Sonoma County Airport, the Guerneville Road exit on 101, a stop in Santa Rosa's rebounded Railroad Square, and then on to Cotati, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, two stops in Novato, two stops in San Rafael. And finally Larkspur.
The northern jag to Cloverdale will come later. That project will require additional tens of millions of dollars, says Mansourian, and would make stops in Windsor and Healdsburg. "We'll work even harder to get to Cloverdale," he says.
Windsor town councilmember Deb Fudge described the Larkspur announcement as a "a huge piece of the financial puzzle. SMART is now on track to bring traffic-free transportation from the Sonoma County Airport to the ferry in Larkspur—and on to San Francisco. Next stop: Windsor." —Tom Gogola