SMART secures money for crucial Healdsburg bridge, but lawsuits blocking construction drag on
With a budget line in Washington DC, Representative Jared Huffman paved the way for SMART to fully fund the replacement of an aging railway bridge over the Russian River, a major obstacle to the line reaching Healdsburg.
The interim victory comes amid a prolonged halt in work on the extension of the rail system north of Santa Rosa, with funding blocked in a lawsuit currently in the state’s Supreme Court. The lawsuit delayed the expansion of the commuter rail system, which was once slated to reach Windsor by the end of 2021, for six months.
Meanwhile, a separate legal challenge halted work on SMART’s parallel bicycle and pedestrian trail, a major setback for the popular trail project. Officials said this case could go on for months or years, throwing another key in the overall construction of SMART.
The money from the Healdsburg Bridge is good news for SMART, which has expanded rail service in recent weeks and lowered fares in a bid to revive trolling ridership from the pandemic era.
Funding for the span, which dates from around 1921, is believed to come from a $ 13.6 million loan that Huffman, D-San Rafael, secured in a $ 547 billion transportation bill to the House of Representatives. the United States.
The bridge replacement is “a huge obstacle to getting the train into downtown Healdsburg and then north,” said Melanie Bagby, Cloverdale city councilor and SMART board member.
Funding for this part of the project “kind of breaks everything open,” she said.
SMART has already secured a $ 3.4 million grant from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority to match the proposed federal dollars and complete the bridge replacement project, now valued at $ 17 million.
But SMART is building the northern rail line one segment at a time, and is well behind its first northward expansion – from Santa Rosa to Windsor. Construction on this 3-mile segment is only about a third complete, and work has been halted since late last year amid a legal battle over Bay Area Bridge tolls. .
A voter-approved increase in those tolls was to fund a range of regional transit projects, including work on the SMART line, but the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association took legal action, claiming the toll increase of bridge amounted to an illegally approved tax. The case is pending in the state’s High Court, raising at least $ 40 million in SMART funding for Windsor’s expansion.
Analyzes carried out by SMART officials have dropped cost estimates for the replacement of the Healdsburg Bridge several times over the years, from an initial price of as much as $ 50 million to the current $ 17 million. .
Overall, the price of the Windsor to Healdsburg track extension, including building a station at Healdsburg, has dropped from $ 194 million in 2019 to $ 118 million today.
To reach the lowest figure, the agency revised an estimate of $ 25 million to build a maintenance facility that can house trains up to $ 5 million thanks to plans to convert an existing warehouse into a facility. satellite maintenance facility.
The cost dropped an additional $ 44 million when the agency ran new simulations and decided it no longer needed to purchase new trains to serve the expanded line. This depreciation came from SMART officials who devised a new operating plan in which a train would run from Healdsburg to Windsor, where passengers would cross the platform and board another train to take them further south. .
Yet lawsuits and national policy ensure that there is little certainty as to when the railroad extension will gain momentum north of Santa Rosa.
Huffman’s assignment is included in the INVEST Act, which has passed two House committee hearings. Republicans and Democrats have added projects to their districts. Passing it seems more feasible than President Joe Biden’s much larger infrastructure proposal, which is mired in a deadlock in the Senate.
“We are cautiously optimistic about securing the funds needed to rebuild the Healdsburg Railroad Bridge,” Farhad Mansourian, executive director of SMART, said in a statement to The Press Democrat.
SMART began construction of an extension in Windsor in January 2020, and the work was scheduled to take two years. But the majority of the $ 65 million project funding, roughly $ 40 million earmarked for the railroad from the $ 1 toll increases on Bay Area bridges, has been stuck in court for more than two years. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued the Bay Area Toll Authority for the toll measures, which it said amounted to an illegally enacted tax for regional infrastructure projects, not a charge for using the bridge.
Although two lower courts have ruled against the taxpayer group, the California Supreme Court agreed in October to appeal, and the case has been pending action since. The toll increase, called the Regional Measure 3, won 55% of the vote in 2018. The measure was designed to raise $ 4.5 billion for regional transportation projects through three bridge toll increases of $ 1 , one of which has entered into force.
The Howard Jarvis Group argues the measure should have required the two-thirds voter margin required for tax increases under California’s Proposition 13.
While SMART awaits a court resolution, it is also seeking alternative funding to move the project forward, according to Mansourian. “We cannot predict how the California State Supreme Court will rule,” he said.
A separate lawsuit, this one in federal court and directly targeting SMART, has been filed by roadside landowners challenging the legality of building a pedestrian and bike path along a historically planned right-of-way for the construction of railways. This lawsuit halted construction of track work, a selling point for voters who approved the formation of SMART in 2008.
At a board meeting on April 21, Mansourian told agency directors that the lawsuit could take from 18 months to several years to resolve. The agency was unable to build a new footpath in the meantime, he said.
In Windsor, SMART has yet to build a platform for people to get on and off trains in the existing station building.
Just south of the building, the stoppage of railway work is undeniable: the line going south is leveled and lined with sections of superimposed rails. Heavy machinery was idle on a recent weekday.
Knowing that SMART would quickly burn off other funding it had secured through a mix of state and federal grants, project managers focused on stream crossings, culverts and other drainage constructions, said officials. agency officials and board members.
“We felt the money could be tied up,” said Deb Fudge, Windsor city councilor and SMART board member. The agency has also drafted a construction contract that will allow it to avoid another round of tendering and hiring for the project once, and if, the toll money starts flowing again.
No scheduled completion date to reach Windsor now exists as the agency cannot predict when the bridge toll money will return, Fudge said.
You can reach editor Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or [email protected] On Twitter @ AndrewGraham88.