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While other North Bay cities are gaining additional train stations in the initial phase of the SMART rail system, Petaluma commuters will have to make tracks to a single downtown station with no plans for additional parking.

Saying construction bids came in low, SMART officials recently announced they are adding a station in Santa Rosa near Coddingtown and another in Novato at Atherton Ave. This first phase of SMART will now stretch from the Guerneville Road Coddingtown to downtown San Rafael.

But, even with low bids SMART has declined to add back a station at Corona Road and North McDowell Blvd. in Petaluma, which has been in the plans since 2005.

According to Petaluma Councilman Mike Healy, a former member of the SMART Board of Directors, the reason is two-fold – lack of money and the rules governing a grant SMART received from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In order to fund a project the MTA requires that it meet specific population density requirements, and the population around the proposed Corona Road station is too sparse.

Which leaves only a single train station in Petaluma, near the old depot buildings on Washington and Copeland streets, which also house the city's visitors center and arts center. There are no plans to build a commuter parking lot for this station, according to Healy, although SMART owns an adjacent 5.2-acre parcel that could be used for that purpose.

The city would like to see "Theatre District" type development on the land once the economy improves, Healy said. Meanwhile, he suggested, it would be easy to turn it into a gravel parking lot for SMART passengers.

The complete plan for the SMART passenger rail system runs from Cloverdale to the Larkspur Ferry terminal, but SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said this week that it is being constructed in phases because funding is tight.

The Measure Q sales tax has only netted $171 million of the $360 million needed to complete even the limited first phase. The rest of the money will come from Bay Area, state and federal transportation funds.

"We are trying to deliver a regional transit system in the worst economy since the Great Depression," he said in a telephone interview. Nobody in 2008 could have predicted how bad the economy would be, he added. That's when 69.6 percent of voters in Marin and Sonoma counties agreed to a one-quarter sales tax to fund SMART. Over its 20-year timeframe the tax was supposed to garner enough money to build and maintain the system.

SMART recently awarded the contract for the first phase, but there is no telling how long it will take to complete the entire project because of the poor economy. According to Mansourian, the full build-out will include the second Petaluma station at Corona Road.

The entire rail system will eventually provide commute hour, midday and weekend service on two-car diesel-powered trains. Each train set can carry 158 passengers plus 24 bicycles. There will also be a parallel bike and walking path the entire length of the rail line, according to plans.

The project is intended to relieve traffic congestion and air pollution in the Highway 101 corridor. According to Mansourian, the three major workplace destinations for North Bay commuters are Santa Rosa, Petaluma and San Rafael.

The lack of adequate funding and the open-ended timetable for completion has led to additional complications for SMART – a possible recall vote and a lawsuit.

A group of individuals in Sonoma and Marin counties has been collecting signatures to place a recall of the Measure Q tax on the ballot.

The other challenge comes from the owners of the Corona Road/North McDowell property designated as a SMART station in the original design. The two Petaluma couples who own the land, Patti and Clinton Gow and Robin and Larry Drew, say they have lost revenue and were nearly forced into foreclosure. Potential tenants, they say, have been reluctant to rent because the land might be taken over for a train station.

Petaluma mortgage broker, Jeff Mayne, who worked with the Drews and the Gows to refinance their property and prevent foreclosure, said there is an "impending lawsuit" against SMART and the city of Petaluma over the issue. But, the property owners would also be willing to offer SMART a lease/purchase agreement to use the site as a construction staging area.

(Contact Lois Pearlman at argus@arguscourier.com)