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SMART project chugs ahead

Building any large public works project in California today is way more complicated and takes far longer to complete than in prior years, and the SMART passenger rail project is a perfect example of this trend.

Increasingly complex and sometimes conflicting state and federal regulations are a constant challenge, while lawsuits and disagreements over property acquisition can cause significant delays and increased costs. Then there are the people who simply don't want the project and seem to find creative ways to stymie progress. SMART's had its fair share of all of these, as well as a few self-inflicted setbacks.

But the biggest problem for SMART continues to be the lack of adequate funding. Just as large majorities of voters in Sonoma and Marin counties gave the okay for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund the train's development in 2008, the Great Recession came barreling down the track and obliterated the ability of the fledging agency to get the entire 70 mile inter-county commuter rail up and running anywhere close to the original start date in 2014. The first leg of the project, from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, is not anticipated to begin running until early 2016.

Among the casualties of diminished sales tax funding was the construction of Petaluma's second eastside train station which has been deferred to an unspecified future date. The delay of an east-side station was disappointing news to Petalumans, especially since nearly two-thirds of the city's population lives on the east-side and will be seriously inconvenienced by having to drive across town to catch the train at the Lakeville Street station.

In June of this year, residents were surprised to learn that the future east-side station, long planned for the intersection of McDowell Boulevard and Corona Road, might instead be located across the street from the newly opened SMART headquarters on Old Redwood Highway on the site of the former Adobe Lumberyard.

Especially since SMART spent several years considering whether, when or how to acquire the Corona Road property which has been officially designated as a future train station in city planning documents for 10 years, the agency's newfound interest in the lumberyard property came as a surprise. No one was more surprised than the Corona Road property owners who'd filed a lawsuit against SMART claiming their actions drove their land to foreclosure by unfair business practices.

Yet SMART's consideration of the lumberyard property as an alternative station site does seem logical. Unlike the Corona Road property, the site is within a five to ten minute walk of dozens of businesses employing an estimated 2,500 employees who might use the train to get to work.

Further insights into SMART's consideration of changing the future eastside station location, however, are hard to find. SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian has been unusually silent on the matter, nor is there anything in the SMART board minutes over the last six months reflecting the agency's formal or informal consideration of the former lumberyard site. If SMART is seriously considering changing the site of the future train station, it would help if officials were more transparent about their intentions.

The agency's latest headache involves ongoing operational problems, specifically a year-long spate of railroad arm malfunctions. Recently, one local couple was driving through a green light when a crossing arm crashed down upon the hood of their car. The problem, caused by the lack of proper synchronization between the traffic lights and crossing mechanism, has been resolved, according to a SMART spokesman.

But the larger problem, in which crossing arms come down but don't retract, is continuing to cause major traffic problems. Last week, the crossing arms malfunctioned at Lakeville and D streets, triggering serious back-ups in the downtown area for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, it took more than an hour for a SMART technician to arrive on the scene, leaving police and hundreds of motorists and holiday shoppers exasperated.


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