State to back plan to use SMART trains to solve Highway 37 congestion

Caltrans to back plan to use SMART trains to solve Highway 37 congestion

But commuters shouldn't count on riding the rails east and west through the North Bay any time soon.
January 19, 2022

By Michael Cabanatuan, San Francisco Chronicle

A new commuter rail line connecting Novato and Solano County along the congested and flood-threatened Highway 37 corridor is expected to be included in state rail plan set for release in early February.

But commuters shouldn't count on riding the rails east and west through the North Bay any time soon.

The passenger train would be operated by SMART, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, and would cost somewhere between $780 million and $1.3 billion, according to a 2019 feasibility study by SMART. But the new rail service is neither funded nor included in the Bay Area's regional transportation spending plan. The study estimated that service could begin four to six years after transportation planners find the funding.

"At this point this is a planning exercise," said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area's regional transportation planning and financing agency. "None of this is imminent. The wheels of government, like a fully loaded train, can sometimes turn very slowly."

Inclusion in the state rail plan, however, could speed the arrival of the train, which has been contemplated for several years as a way to ease congestion on Highway 37, a once-rural highway along the northern edge of San Pablo Bay. It's now an important connection between Solano County, where housing is cheaper, and job centers in Marin and Sonoma counties. The highway is also subject to flooding in heavy rains and is expected to be engulfed by sea level rise.

The looming need to improve Highway 37, combined with the rail service's inclusion in the state rail plan could help speed efforts to get the new SMART line on track, Goodwin said. A study of plans for the Highway 37 corridor is starting with a virtual public meeting on Jan. 25 and is expected to be completed by summer or fall.

"This is a splendid time for proposals about east-west travel in the North Bay to be spotlighted," he said. "We're trying to come up with a plan that is higher, wider, safer, greener and built to last."

Matt Stevens, a SMART spokesperson, said he believes the train needs to be part of the answer.

"All of the various planning entities from the county on up are looking at how they can solve the Highway 37 problem, which is basically driven by sea level rise and commuter congestion. Commuter rail is a part of that solution."

Caltrans spokesperson Matt Rocco confirmed that SMART is likely to be included in the state rail plan but said he could not discuss details until it was released. The plan outlines improvements to the state's passenger rail services deemed necessary in the five and 10 years as well as by 2050. No funding is included to those plans.

Stevens would not discuss details of the SMART line's inclusion in the rail plan, but said the agency's 2019 feasibility study outlined two options — one that would involve fewer improvements but travel at slower speeds while would require more investment but travel at faster speeds and lure more passengers. Both would use existing rail lines to connect SMART's Novato/Hamilton with the Amtrak/Capitol Corridor's Fairfield/Suisun station in Suisun City, traveling through Napa and Solano counties.

The first option would cost between $780 million and $898 million, travel at up to 60 mph and take 70 to 80 minutes to make the 40-mile trip in conventional rail cars pulled by used locomotives.

It would carry an estimated 2,100 passengers a day, according to the study. The second option would draw 5,400 passengers a day and make the trip in an hour to an hour and 15 minutes with a maximum speed of 79 mph in modern rail cars that might include smaller diesel-powered units similar to those used on the existing SMART line . It would cost an estimated $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion.

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ctuan

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