With a budget line in Washington, Rep. Jared Huffman opened a path for SMART to fully fund the replacement of an aging railway bridge over the Russian River, a major obstacle to the route to Healdsburg.
The preliminary funding breakthrough comes amid a prolonged standstill in work on expanding the rail system north of Santa Rosa, where the funding is now tied up in a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court. The lawsuit has delayed the expansion of the S-Bahn system, which should reach Windsor in late 2021, by six months.
Meanwhile, a separate legal challenge has halted work on SMART’s parallel bike and pedestrian path, a serious setback for the popular trail project. Officials said the case could drag on for months or years and throw another wrench into the overall structure of SMART.
The announcement of the money for the Healdsburg Bridge comes as SMART has expanded train traffic and lowered fares in the past few weeks to help accelerate passenger traffic in the pandemic era.
Funding for the range, which dates to approximately 1921, would come through a $ 13.6 million eligibility from Huffman, D-San Rafael, secured in a $ 547 billion shipping bill to the House of Representatives.
Replacing the bridge was “a major obstacle to getting the train to downtown Healdsburg and then north,” said Cloverdale councilor and SMART board member Melanie Bagby.
Funding this part of the project “kind of breaks it all up,” she said.
SMART has already secured a US $ 3.4 million grant from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority to cover the proposed US $ and complete the bridge replacement project, which is now valued at US $ 17 million.
But SMART is building the railway line to the north one segment at a time and is far behind on its first extension to the north – from Santa Rosa to Windsor. Construction on this 3-mile segment is only about a third complete, and work has been suspended since late last year amid a lawsuit over bridge fees in the Bay Area.
A voter-approved increase in these tolls was supposed to fund a number of regional transit projects, including work on the SMART line, but the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued, claiming that the increased bridge tolls constituted an illegally approved tax. The case is pending in the state Supreme Court and ties up at least $ 40 million in SMART funding earmarked for the Windsor expansion.
Analysis by SMART officials has lowered cost estimates for replacing the Healdsburg Bridge several times over the years, from an initial price of no less than $ 50 million to the current $ 17 million.
Overall, the price of the Windsor to Healdsburg extension, including the construction of a station in Healdsburg, has dropped from $ 194 million in 2019 to $ 118 million today.
To hit the lower number, the agency revised an estimate of $ 25 million to build a maintenance facility where trains could be scaled down to $ 5 million by converting an existing warehouse into a smaller, satellite-based maintenance facility should.
Costs dropped another $ 44 million as the agency ran new simulations and decided it would no longer need to buy new trains to service the expanded route. This write-off was done by SMART officials creating a new operations plan that would see a train going from Healdsburg to Windsor, where drivers would cross the platform and board another train to take them further south.
Still, legal proceedings and national politics mean that there is little certainty when the railroad extension north of Santa Rosa will take off.
Huffman’s ear tag is included in the INVEST Act, which has passed two House hearings. Republicans and Democrats alike have added projects in their districts. Its passage appears to be more doable than President Joe Biden’s much larger infrastructure proposal, which is stuck in a Senate stalemate.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we will receive the funds needed to rebuild the Healdsburg Railway Bridge,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s executive director, in a statement to The Press Democrat.
SMART began construction on a Windsor extension in January 2020 and the work was estimated to be two years. But most of the funding for the $ 65 million project, about $ 40 million earmarked for the railroad from $ 1 toll increases on bridges in the Bay Area, has been tied up in court for over two years. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued the Bay Area Toll Authority for tolling measures, which they believed were an unlawful tax on regional infrastructure projects rather than a fee for using the bridge.
Although two lower courts ruled against the taxpayer group, the California Supreme Court agreed to take his appeal in October, and the case has been awaiting further action since then. The toll increase, known as Regional Measure 3, garnered 55% of the votes in 2018. The move should raise $ 4.5 billion for regional transportation projects through three $ 1 bridge toll increases, one of which has come into effect.
The Howard Jarvis Group argues that the move should have required the two-thirds majority of voters required for California Proposition 13 tax increases.
While SMART awaits a court ruling, Mansourian says it is also looking for alternative financing to move the project forward. “We can’t predict how the California Supreme Court will rule,” he said.
A separate lawsuit, this one before a federal court and directed directly against SMART, was filed by property owners on the edge of the route to challenge the legality of the construction of a pedestrian and bicycle path along a historically intended route for the construction of railway lines. That lawsuit stopped the construction of pathways, a selling point for voters who voted to found SMART in 2008.
At a board meeting on April 21, Mansourian told the agency’s directors that the lawsuit could take 18 months to several years to resolve. The authority could not build a new pedestrian walkway in the meantime, he said.
In Windsor, SMART has yet to build a platform so that people can get on and off trains at the existing station building.
Immediately to the south of the building, the stop of the railway work is unmistakable: the route running south is graded and lined with stacked track sections. Heavy machinery was idle on a weekday.
Knowing that SMART would quickly burn the other funding it had secured through a mix of state and federal grants, project managers focused on creek crossings, culverts and other drainage structures, agency officials and board members said.
“We felt the money might be tied up,” said Deb Fudge, Windsor councilor and SMART board member. The agency has also signed a construction contract that allows it to avoid a new round of tendering and hiring for the project once and when the tolls start flowing again.
There is currently no projected completion date for reaching Windsor as the agency cannot predict when the bridge toll will start flowing again, Fudge said.
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ AndrewGraham88.