As other cities add SMART stations, Petaluma will still get only one

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.

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