Upfront: Mind the Gap

SMART needs another $600 million to fully realize its vision

By Tom Gogola, Pacific Sun

The tracks are laid, the cars are here—but the train stations?

As the highly anticipated Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) service rolls down the line to a late 2016 opening, an October document released by SMART indicates it will eventually need an additional $120 million to fully develop nine stations along a 43-mile “Phase I” route from San Rafael to Airport Road in Santa Rosa.

The station funds are a piece of the $600 million SMART needs to raise to realize the vision of the rail as a sleek, green and efficient alternative to unrelenting congestion on Highway 101 for commuters in Marin and Sonoma counties.

The SMART project list includes another $124 million for a promised bike and pedestrian parkway along the tracks; $11 million for a presently unidentified second station in Petaluma; $42 million for a Larkspur track extension; and, eventually, $178 million for the Phase II SMART extension, about 25 miles of track north to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

The station build-out has reached a new phase. On Nov. 17, contractors poured the top layer of concrete for a station in San Rafael and were headed north once they finished.

“This really marks the beginning of the station-finish process,” says Matt Stevens, community education and outreach manager at SMART.

The head of the rail district says the $120 million represents station enhancements that would take place over the next 25 years, as he stresses that the document in question is a planning document requested by the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“We are building the stations from downtown San Rafael to the airport,” says SMART general manager Farhad Mansourian. He insists that the money to build the stations in time for late 2016 is available now. “Absolutely. By the time we finish our project, we’ll have spent just under $500 million for the entire system of 43 to 45 miles.”

The station designs were approved by the SMART board of directors earlier this year. According to a report from the May 6 board meeting, the approval came with a board request for a range of improvements that totaled $12 million across the system. Those are listed as “unfunded requested improvements” in SMART documents.

Marin and Sonoma County residents voted to support Measure Q in 2008, which imposed a quarter-cent sales tax for 20 years to fund SMART’s construction, and which has sent over $200 million SMART’s way, according to revenue estimates. SMART has pieced together multiple revenue sources to supplement Measure Q.

Based on information contained in the Oct. 21 planning document, the total price tag will approach
$1 billion by the time the 70-mile system is complete. The additional $120 million for station enhancements would go to pay for more furniture, better access for the disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], and landscaping, along with maps and “bicycle parking/sharing, real-time transit signage, intermodal improvements, security enhancements and other capital improvements for programs such as car sharing,” according to the document.

At least one Marin County official was more than surprised by the late October news of a
$120 million sticker price for enhanced SMART stations. During an Oct. 22 board meeting of the Transportation Authority of Marin, executive director Dianne Steinhauser told the Marin County supervisors that her office, which helps set funding priorities for local transportation projects, was “just receiving information this week about a very large unfunded need around our station sites in Marin, pretty astounding numbers, actually.”

Steinhauser suggested that the county wait and see if other “SMART partners” come forward before sending any money to the rail agency. She spoke of “$10 to $12 million in unfunded needs at each station in Marin. This is a little astounding, this is an immediate need—but I think we’ve got to get our arms around what this is before we make a recommendation.”

Mansourian says that “there is a big confusion here,” as he reiterated that the document in question is actually a planning document requested by the MTC and represents more of a “wish list” of improvements that would be addressed as the rail doubles in ridership, which he anticipates it will, by 2040. Mansourian insists that the trains and stations coming online next year would be ADA-compliant and said the $120 million would be for “more landscaping, more secure facilities and more ADA facilities,” at the stations. He wouldn’t address Steinhauser’s comments about the “immediate needs” of the items.

The SMART plan calls for four Marin County stations. A fifth, the Larkspur extension, has a $20 million pledge from President Obama to pay for part of it, but that money is held up in a transportation bill presently stalled in Congress. SMART officials say stations may have multiple project sponsors as they are being contemplated or completed, and in Petaluma a sponsor has come forward to build a proposed second, eastside station just outside the city limits.

The first station in Petaluma will be on Lakeville Street, site of the Petaluma visitors center. The would-be partner for one of the second stations is the Cornerstone Group, a Petaluma-based commercial real estate company. (Coincidentally, Cornerstone owns and occupies office space in the building that houses the SMART headquarters at 5401 Old Redwood Hwy. in Petaluma.) The firm has been based in Petaluma since moving from San Mateo in 2013, and in just a few years it has made several headline-grabbing buys, including the 2014 purchase of the Press Democrat building on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa.

Cornerstone’s proposal was the subject of much debate at the last SMART board of directors meeting, held Nov. 18 at SMART headquarters. The meeting served to highlight areas where the promised environmental benefits of the decades-in-coming train are meeting the realities of development and real-estate pressure along the SMART corridor. Nowhere is this more evident than at the edge of the Petaluma urban-growth boundary.

The SMART board is now considering two sites for a second Petaluma station. The first is a privately owned rail yard on Corona Road that was presumed for decades to be the site of any future-looking rail project in town. The other is the Cornerstone site, about a mile east at the former Adobe Lumber site on Old Redwood Highway in unincorporated Sonoma County.

Cornerstone has offered to build the eastside station at the shuttered Adobe Lumber space for “free”—free in the sense that in exchange for an $11 million investment at the Old Redwood Highway station, Cornerstone would get development rights to properties near the downtown Petaluma station.

A growing chorus of critics has highlighted the sensitivity of the Adobe Lumber property, which is outside the “urban growth boundary” established by city voters in 2008 to keep the sprawl at bay as development pressure intensifies in the historically agricultural town.

During last week’s SMART board meeting, the Greenbelt Alliance’s Teri Shore emphasized that the Cornerstone proposal needed to go through a full public process and environmental review before any local decisions were made about it as a potential second station. Mansourian says that it would, but no decisions have been made. “Upon approval by the board, we’ll begin the public process, the environmental reviews. All we’re doing now is real estate negotiations.”

The property, Shore noted, is a “community separator” at the edge of the urban-growth boundary. She reminded the board that Petaluma’s urban-growth-boundary is up for renewal in 2016.

SMART board member and Sonoma County supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes Petaluma, has long been a proponent of a second Petaluma station, and said last week that he didn’t have a preference where it was built—only that whatever gets built gets built soon.

Rabbitt said that the Corona Road site was only on the board’s agenda last week because of the emergence of the Old Redwood Highway plan.

“I don’t have a particular choice for either,” Rabbitt said. “I just want a second station.

“We have zero dollars, as does SMART,” Rabbitt added. He warned the board last week that if a second Petaluma station wasn’t built within the “Phase 1” SMART timetable, “it will take years.”

The railroad hopes to start the Phase I service by next December.

The emergence of the Cornerstone proposal put renewed focus on the Corona Road site, and in a letter to the board from Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA), director David Keller noted that “Corona Road has been examined and approved as the station location through a long, rich and engaged public process over the past two decades.”

The organization says the consensus in Petaluma is to utilize the Corona Road site, but that’s not how the local paper sees it.

Back in August, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, part of the Sonoma Media Group that owns the Press Democrat, editorialized in favor of the Adobe Lumber site, and noted that it could include a freight train spur to the Lagunitas brewing facility. Fewer dog-faced trucks hauling kegs of beer on Highway 101 is good environmental news, the paper argued.

Absent in the editorial was any mention of the urban-growth-boundary that could wind up an “urban growth exemption” zone in boomtown Petaluma. The Cornerstone site would be closer to the new offices of the 500 or so former Fireman’s Fund employees who were absorbed into the German insurance giant Allianz this month, but SCCA says that while the site “is within the voter approved Urban Growth Boundary, it is nevertheless at the outer edge of the UGB and should therefore be used for lower density development in accordance with the UGB.”

The relocation, Keller wrote, “would inevitably be a first step in pressures for development of new and intensified commercial retail, or residential construction” along and adjacent to the Adobe site.

Petaluma is not the only SMART town with a station in limbo. Also under discussion by the SMART board last week: a $43 million Larkspur extension and station in that that southeastern Marin County town and transit hub. The board signed off on a $1.4 million contract for the engineering firm RailPros to do the the preliminary design work for the Larkspur project, a 2.1-mile track from San Rafael. The contract was approved even as money to seed construction of the extension remains in Congressional limbo, a point highlighted by board member and Sonoma County supervisor Shirlee Zane.

“This was for design,” Zane says. “The president’s budget is for actual construction.”

Mansourian says the funding picture for the Larkspur track extension “will be more clear on Dec. 11,” when the Senate and House pass a resolution on how they will proceed with the bill.

 

This article was originally published by the Pacific Sun.

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