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San Rafael Slams Brakes on SMART Rail Extension

Lingering concerns that the trains will cause havoc prompted San Rafael City Manager Jim Schulz to request the delay.

by Derek Moore, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / February 9, 2017

(TNS) -- San Rafael is seeking the last-minute delay of a $48 million project to extend a commuter rail line to Larkspur and ferries servicing San Francisco, citing concerns the trains will cause “total chaos” in Marin County’s largest city by disrupting operations at a transit hub used daily by thousands of bus riders.

San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips made that dire prediction Wednesday while discussing his city’s desire to put the brakes on the Larkspur extension, which has been decades in planning.

“The disruption to our downtown is going to be significant, therefore, we would prefer that leg (to Larkspur) be delayed,” said Phillips, who is also a member of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority’s board of directors.

The Larkspur extension was a critical component of the 2008 tax measure voters in both counties approved to fund the rail line. SMART is going out to bid on construction of the 2.2-mile link next week.

But lingering concerns that the trains will cause havoc in and around the Bettini Transit Center prompted Phillips and San Rafael City Manager Jim Schulz to request the delay in a Jan. 23 letter to SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.

The letter requested the item be placed on the Feb. 1 agenda for SMART’s board meeting. However, that meeting was canceled.

Deb Fudge, Windsor’s mayor and chairwoman of SMART’s board, said Wednesday she was “surprised” by the timing of San Rafael’s request. She said she has no plans to put the item on a future board agenda.

“The board’s already made the policy decision to connect to Larkspur and spent a great time of effort to obtain the $48 million to do that,” she said.

Mansourian instead is drafting a letter in response to the concerns raised by San Rafael officials. He said Wednesday the letter will make clear the rail agency’s intention to move the Larkspur project forward.

“The direction to me was to stay on course,” Mansourian said Wednesday from Washington, D.C., where he is seeking federal money for extending the rail line to Windsor.

SMART has delayed the start of passenger service to late spring as it confronts engine problems on the trains and challenges getting warning signals to function properly along the initial 42-mile route from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael.

Congress in 2015 approved $22 million for SMART’s rail link to the Larkspur ferry terminal. The remaining $26 million is coming from a combination of regional transportation funds and other federal sources.

SMART’s current plans call for using the Bettini Transit Center as a temporary hub for rail passengers to get on and off trains. That would mean displacing bus stops that currently handle about 9,000 riders per day.

SMART is spending $3.2 million in federal money to upgrade the facility.

San Rafael officials express fears that buses operating on the perimeter of the transit hub will worsen traffic congestion in downtown San Rafael.

They also worry traffic will back up on surface streets, as well as nearby Highway 101 off- and on-ramps, as trains pass through town.

Phillips said city officials prefer the Larkspur extension be delayed until a new transit center is built to accommodate bus and train service.

“My biggest concern, quite frankly, is that we may never see a permanent solution,” Phillips said.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which owns the transit center, has not identified a new site or funding for the project, which is estimated to cost as much as $32 million, according to the city.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves on the bridge district’s board as well as SMART’s board, said he believes the Larkspur funding is already earmarked. He expressed hopes that SMART and San Rafael can work together on making the temporary transit hub work.

“I don’t think it’s taking a sledgehammer to the whole project,” Rabbitt said.

SMART is to be reimbursed by the federal government for costs associated with the Larkspur project, according to Mansourian, who said any work delays could increase costs or kill the project entirely.

“How do we go from a fully funded project that almost a quarter-million people demanded, to a project that now has a deficit? Who’s going to pay for that?” Mansourian said.

©2017 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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