Dec. 29—A proposal to add passenger rail service along the traffic-plagued Highway 37 corridor, linking Marin and Solano counties, has taken a significant step forward.
SMART's east-west freight track has been included in the Federal Railroad Administration Corridor Identification and Development program, making Caltrans eligible to receive $500,000 to help develop rail expansion, the agency said.
"This is really an initial step," said Eric Lucan, Marin County supervisor and chair of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board. "It's a signal that this corridor is in the game, that it's included in the plans and that it's eligible for federal funding."
Today, SMART runs passenger trains along Highway 101 between Larkspur and Santa Rosa. The proposal to create an east-west connection on its existing freight corridor along Highway 37 was included in a 2022 state rail plan.
In an email, Caltrans spokesperson Edward Barrera said his agency is working with the FRA, the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, SMART and others to develop projects that will "deliver the state's vision of an integrated, seamless rail network for all California."
" Caltrans is the project sponsor and with partners will develop passenger rail service connecting Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties to Solano, Yolo, and Sacramento counties," Barrera said. "The funds will help develop a comprehensive program that guides intercity passenger rail development throughout the country and create a pipeline of intercity passenger rail projects ready for implementation."
Julia Gonzalez, a spokesperson for SMART, said the agency is looking forward to the collaboration.
"This reflects a shared commitment to recognizing the value of investing in SMART and affirms our dedication to increasing climate-friendly travel choices for residents, employees, students, and visitors," Gonzalez said in an email.
Under the proposal, passengers would be able to travel from the Novato-Hamilton station through Sonoma and Napa counties before arriving in Suisun City. From there they would be able to connect to the larger Capitol Corridor network to Sacramento and San Jose as well the national rail system.
The proposed SMART station in Suisun City is included as part of a proposed Solano transit hub project being considered in the state plan. The hub also would include more frequent Amtrak train trips along the Capitol Corridor, bus stations and a pedestrian tunnel linking the Fairfield and Suisun City downtown areas.
A study of the hub project by the Solano Transportation Authority in 2021 found the best location for a SMART station would be at the Suisun-Fairfield Station along Highway 12. The SMART station is estimated to cost about $8.9 million, not including the track improvements on the east-west rail corridor, according to the study.
The plan also examined the possibility of a second SMART station in Cordelia near the interchange project connecting Interstate 80, Interstate 680 and Highway 12.
The Solano proposal follows a separate 2019 state-funded study by SMART. The study found passenger rail service on the 41-mile route to Suisun City would be feasible along the existing east-west rail corridor. SMART estimated the costs, including rail improvements, would range from $780 million to $1.3 billion depending on the options.
In 2022, the passage of Sen. Mike McGuire's Senate Bill 1175 designated the SMART tracks as an intermodal passenger service corridor. Caltrans then included SMART in a state-prioritized list of passenger rail corridors for consideration through the FRA's corridor identification process.
"The federal designation is a game changer," said McGuire in a prepared statement. "Now, SMART will be able to tap these federal and state funds to help move the commuter service east. This really puts our legislation to work by expanding the Capitol Corridor along SMART's east-west tracks."
David Schonbrunn, president of the Train Riders Association of California nonprofit group, said he and his organization have long supported a passenger rail connection along Highway 37. However, Schonbrunn said SMART can use a lot of its existing infrastructure to get the passenger rail service happening sooner, rather than spending millions on overhaul.
"The roadway is in trouble, it has capacity constraints," Schonbrunn said. "It's obvious that there should be rail in this corridor, the question is, are we going to do it in a cost-effective manner."
SMART officials said it's too early to know what infrastructure will be kept or replaced. Funding for the project also has not been identified.
Meanwhile, there are several short- and long-term planning efforts underway to relieve traffic and also address the climate impact on Highway 37, a 21-mile commuter route that carries 40,000 travelers between Marin County and Vallejo daily.
Plans are ramping up for a $430 million project to widen the 10-mile stretch of Highway 37 between Sears Point and Mare Island. At the same time, planning is progressing on the estimated $1.6 billion project to elevate a 2.5-mile section of Highway 37 in Marin. The project area is between the Highway 101 interchange in Novato to the Atherton Avenue exit.
Lucan said the passenger rail planning ties in nicely with the work going into improving conditions on Highway 37.
"The ultimate goal of all of this, should this ever happen in my lifetime, is reducing the amount of single-occupancy vehicles on the roads because they are the major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions," Lucan said. "Green, multimodal, transit options are where we all need to be focusing our efforts."
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