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Imagine a North Bay with a transportation network of buses, shuttles, ferries, trollies, bike paths and sidewalks all connected with a centralized rail line that makes it possible to easily travel around Marin and Sonoma counties without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

It’s hard to envision such a network in 2011, when driving on Highway 101 is virtually the sole alternative for travel between the two counties. But the public already owns an asset capable of changing that reality.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District – SMART – will build a 70-mile passenger railroad and parallel bicycle-pedestrian path along the publicly owned Northwestern Pacific Railroad right of way through the two counties. The rail line runs from Cloverdale, at the north end of Sonoma County, to Larkspur, where the Golden Gate Ferry connects Marin County with San Francisco. Along the way SMART will have stations at the major population and job centers of the North Bay: San Rafael, Novato, Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg.

The SMART train and pathway project will provide the backbone of a transportation system that ties existing transit systems such as buses and ferries along with future options such as shuttles and trollies into a seamless network that creates true transportation options for North Bay residents. Without that backbone, a congested Highway 101 will remain the only viable alternative for north-south travel in the two counties.

The total SMART project is estimated to cost about $690 million, the bulk of which will come from Measure Q, a one-quarter percent sales tax increase approved by 69.6 percent of Marin and Sonoma voters in the Nov. 4, 2008, election.

Since that vote, the economic downturn has reduced SMART's projected revenues by several hundred million dollars over the 20-year life of the sales tax, leaving the agency short of the money needed to complete the project as originally envisioned. Consequently, SMART's Board of Directors has decided to build in stages. The first segment, 37 miles from downtown San Rafael with Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, will connect the two largest cities in the North Bay and all of the cities in between. Construction on this segment is scheduled to begin in 2011, with passenger train service scheduled to begin in late 2014.

Future segments, ultimately completing the project from Larkspur to Cloverdale, will be built as additional revenues become available.

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