SAN RAFAEL (KPIX 5) — The State of California wants to know if it’s possible for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit to branch out to help ease traffic in the East Bay.

Traffic backs up on Highway 37 as it shrinks to a single lane and traffic engineers say a lot of those drivers are traveling to and from an already-jammed Interstate 80 in the East Bay.  So as part of a comprehensive rail plan, the state asked SMART if it’s possible to connect with Amtrak on the so-called “Capitol Corridor” to get some people out of their cars and onto a train.

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“It’s fantastic,” said SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. “For us to be able to actually connect to the national railroad … it’s tremendous.”

SMART says it can use tracks that already exist to get people from the Amtrak station in Suisun City, through Sonoma County, alongside Highway 37 and down to its Hamilton Station in Novato.  From there, commuters could head down to the Larkspur Ferry to San Francisco.

“And we can carry as many passengers as you want and here are the cost estimates, $900 million to $1.3 billion,” said Mansourian.

It’s expensive because the existing freight tracks would have to be upgraded for passenger trains.

But is there demand for it? Hamilton Station was deserted on Monday at noon with only three cars in its parking lot.

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“Nobody is using it,” said Novato resident Maria Sabido. “I run here everyday and it’s always like this.”

But Mansourian says it and the new proposed connector route are designed for the future, as the state’s population is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 30 years.

“It’s not just a cost,” he said, “It is really creating a foundation for major transit projects for many generations to come.”

Mansourian says the new connector line could be ready in as little as four years and would be a state-sponsored project, so the funds to build it would not come from SMART’s budget.

The question the study raised was whether the new route was technically feasible, and the answer to that seems to be yes. But now, the next study is going to ask the important question: whether a sufficient number of people would be willing to use it.

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