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Train blamed for Petaluma parking crunch

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Parking availability for businesses on East D Street in Petaluma had never been a problem, until the SMART train began service this summer, according to Jim Balshaw, owner of Preferred Sonoma Caterers. Once the train started running, carrying thousands of passengers each day from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, commuters flocked to the downtown train station.

SMART built a 50-space dirt parking lot next to the train station, but Balshaw said that it fills up quickly each morning and side streets around the station handle the spillover parking, impacting local businesses.

“I’m glad the train is doing well, but I’m not sure they planned for the parking,” he said. “They park there all day, so presumably they are commuters. Businesses on the street are seeing problems.”

Many community and business leaders anticipated the problem of station-area parking long before the rail agency launched service, but three months in, those problems are coming into focus.

“People are getting here first thing in the morning and they leave in the evening, so it is presumably train commuters,” Balshaw said. “I’d like to see some time limits on street parking, so someone doesn’t park, leave town and come back 10 hours later to get their car. They are blocking businesses.”

Besides building the dirt parking lot near the downtown station, which costs $2 per day for parking, SMART has also proposed a second station at Corona Road with a 150-space lot to ease the downtown parking situation.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the SMART board of directors, said a deal was in place between SMART and a developer to build the second station and develop a residential and commercial project downtown.

“We need to get that station,” he said. “It would add ridership and alleviate the parking issues downtown. Parking is so important for every station.”

The second station, and the parking relief it brings, could still be several years away, though. Todd Kurtin of Lomas Partners, who is developing both the Corona Road and downtown sites, said he is in the preliminary stages of designing a project that would appeal to the community. The soil at the Corona Road site must still be cleaned up to meet a water regulator’s requirements, he said.

Kurtin, who is based in Southern California, said he was in Petaluma last week meeting with city leaders and noticed the downtown parking problem. He also heard about the need for more parking near the station during his meetings, he said.

“The thing that kept hitting me in the face was the parking issue,” he said. “I heard the concerns and I’m trying to see if I can help solve some of that problem. I’m trying to have more parking than what is required for the master plan.”

He said he hoped to have a clear idea of what both projects would look like by the beginning of the new year. But he pointed to several other long planned projects near Petaluma’s downtown that are still going through the bureaucratic process, and declined to speculate on a time line for his project.

“It’s hard for me to say,” he said. “If there is momentum in the city to find a way to move things quicker and support your housing needs, then it’s a whole different ball game.”

Until then, Balshaw is lobbying the city for stricter parking enforcement on his street.

“Simply limiting parking to three hours without a permit from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday in the impacted neighborhoods would go a long way,” he wrote in a letter to the city council. “We’re being challenged Monday through Friday both on East D and the side streets for several blocks.”

Farhad Mansourain, SMART’s general manager, said on-street parking was a city matter, but he said the Petaluma station was among the most popular along the rail line.

“Petaluma is a heavy station for both origin and destination,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs and a lot of residents are using the train.”

City Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said she has discussed the parking issue with city staff. She said she would prefer issuing parking permits to residents and businesses on the affected streets, which would prohibit commuters from parking in the neighborhoods.

“There’s a solution to this problem,” she said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s not like this problem wasn’t anticipated.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)