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Editorial: East-west connector is a SMART idea

A SMART commuter train pulls into the Cotati station, during the transportation service's roll-out earlier in 2017. (Kent Porter/Press Democrat)

JASON WALSH,

Within 25 years, scientists anticipate several impressive advancements for humankind. Among them they predict that we will discover a vaccine for AIDS, prove the existence of dark matter and standardize the ability to communicate via hologram.

And perhaps most astoundingly of all – by 2040 the SMART train may run through the Sonoma Valley.

Yes, when the rest of the country is being particle-accelerated for weekends away on Neptune, we’ll be donning conductor coveralls for trips to American Canyon.

And that’s not a prediction from the science community, it’s from an even more inscrutable set of minds: Caltrans. In a report drafted by our state highway overlords known as the 2018 California State Rail Plan, Caltrans officials propose an extension they call the “Novato-Solano Hub,” a 25-mile set of track that weaves east along Highway 37 from Novato, north through Schellville and then east again toward Vallejo. It’s all part of an ambitious statewide initiative to boost California’s ridership on rail and buses from its current 110,000 daily trips to more than 1.3 million by 2040.

The plan still needs some ironing out. For instance, there are no cost estimates yet; however, SMART officials say they are now seeking an $837,000 state transportation grant with which they would use to conduct a feasibility study on the proposal. Additionally, transporting people within a Sonoma Valley-Novato-Vallejo triangle wouldn’t help the state achieve its ridership goals unless the eastern side of the route could be extended -- via non-SMART-owned tracks -- in order to connect passengers to the Amtrak station in Suisun City. From there, one could travel throughout the state.

So this is by no means a sign that Sonomans will soon be caught up in SMART-mania like the county’s 101-corridor communities, where ridership has met or bettered expectations through the first few months of operation. Just don’t bust out those conductors whistles yet, Sonoma. Still, the prospects of SMART connections for Sonoma are intriguing.

Imagine if Sonoma residents could hook up at a Schellville station and choo-choo by way of SMART and Amtrak all the way to Tahoe or, perhaps more practically, rail commute to jobs in Marin. Likewise, connecting Marin and Solano wine enthusiasts to Sonoma wine country on the train would mean an element of traffic-free tourism – and fewer wobbly cars on the single-lane Highway 121.

And if sea-level-rise predictions are accurate and a solution to Highway 37’s underwater future remains unresolved, alternative transportation to Sonoma’s east will be that much more of an imperative. It also goes without saying that Sonoma Valley residents contribute to the SMART sales tax bill every bit as much as the SMART-serviced cities, and should have a chance to utilize its regional tracks if the opportunity arises.

SMART director Farhad Mansourian told the Press Democrat last week that the feasibility study would take at least a year and a half – and only then could they develop cost estimates. And even still the Novato-Sonoma-Solano Hub would have to file into queue behind the extensions to Cloverdale and Larkspur, which were promised to Sonoma and Marin voters in 2008, before they approved funding SMART with the Measure Q sales tax in the first place. Sonoma’s modern day rail link to the outside world may take a while.

“You gotta have a vision so you can get places,” said Mansourian.

Yes you do. Here’s hoping SMART’s Sonoma Valley vision doesn’t require a telescope.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.