SMART trains set to roll into North Bay

SAN RAFAEL (KTVU) -- The long-delayed SMART train service to the North Bay counties of Sonoma and Marin is expected to start rolling this summer despite a significant landslide that is still under repair.

Once the transit agency launches its service, it will be the first rail alternative for Marin and Sonoma counties in generations.

Train crews and contractors have been working the past few weeks to restabilize a San Rafael hillside near the Puerto Suello Hill Tunnel that gave way during recent heavy rains.

The landslide brought mud, rocks and trees down on the tracks in January, which was followed by a few small surface slides in the following weeks.

The slides prompted the postponement of test runs by SMART trains into San Rafael while the hillside repairs were completed.

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"We had a small window in between our signaling testing and our train testing," said Bill Gamlen, the chief engineer for the transit service. "We thought we could get in and get out and get a lot of this cleaned up and avoid future problems down the road."

Officials said after the debris has been removed and the walls are shored up, it should be in place for several years barring sustained, heavy rainfall.

"Things have dried out and we're in pretty good shape," Gamlen said.

The SMART train passenger service is scheduled to begin sometime before mid-June. Riders won't be charged until Independence Day and then a half-price fare will be in effect from July 4 to Labor Day.

When the construction work and testing are done, the initial transit segment will run from Santa Rosa to San Rafael's downtown Transit Center. Free buses will then shuttle passengers to the Larkspur Ferry until the final 2.2 miles of tracks are laid to it.

"Right now, we've wrapped up some preliminary design work and we're in the process of hiring some design/build contractors that will start the work," Gamlen said.

The tracks to the Larkspur ferry should be completed for passenger service by the end of next year, officials said.

SMART transit officials have also constructed every grade crossing in case towns like Penngrove, Petaluma or others petition the Federal Railroad Administration for a no-whistle quiet zone.

If towns pursue a quiet zone, the crossings will be already equipped to comply with such a request.

"It's putting medians in the road way or adding additional gates so that people can't go around the two gates that are out there." Gamlen said.

By KTVU reporter Tom Vacar.

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