Small Starts Funding Cut Jeopardizes Critical SMART Train Extension

After a Senate committee slashed the Small Starts grant program, the new Marin-Sonoma "SMART" train may not be extended from San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry landing, a critical link enabling rail commuters to take the ferry to San Francisco.

August 14, 2015, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

"Funding to extend commuter rail service from San Rafael to Larkspur could be in jeopardy after a U.S. Senate committee sliced a program that holds money for the planned train line addition," writes Mark Prado for the Marin Independent Journal.

Credit: Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART)

The Larkspur extension was set to receive $20 million after "the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved $330 million as part of the Federal Transit Administration’s 'Small Starts' grant program as outlined in President Obama’s new budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year," writes Prado. "But when the Senate Appropriations Committee got hold of the budget, it cut the Small Starts funding from $330 million to $30 million," making that funding unlikely.

“The Senate all but gutted the Small Starts program,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told the rail board last week. “Trying to get $20 million out of a $30 million national pot is hard."

Small starts was to supply 53 percent of the $42 million cost of the 2.1-mile extension, according to a Nov. 2014 FTA document [PDF], with the remaining provided by the Regional Measure 2 program [PDFadministered by the Bay Area Toll Authority, a division of Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  

"This bill slashes funding for transit systems across the country," reads a June 23 summary of a Senate Appropriations Committee markup of a Transportation, Housing And Urban Development [THUD], And Related Agencies Fiscal Year 2016 Appropriations Bill.

  • Federal Transit Administration - New Starts:  The bill funds the transit New Starts program at $1.6 billion, which is $336 million less than the House bill, $535 million less than fiscal year 2015, and $1.7 billion less than the President’s budget request.  This is the lowest level provided for the New Starts program in ten years. 

According to the FTA's Introduction to New Starts, "(a)nnually, $200 million of this funding is set-aside for 'Small Starts;' that is, major transit capital projects costing less than $250 million, and requiring less than $75 million in Small Starts resources."

Prado goes on to describe the extension from San Rafael to the ferry terminal at Larkspur in southern Marin County and frustration with a "dysfunctional Congress," as SMART chairwoman and Marin Supervisor Judy Arnold put it.

Due to sales tax revenue shortfalls, "the project is being phased, and a $428 million San Rafael-to-Santa Rosa line is under construction and set to open in late 2016," adds Prado.

As for the critical Larkspur extension, "We are continuing as though the money is coming," stated Mansourian.

Monday, August 10, 2015 in Marin Independent Journal

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