This week, for the first time in nearly 60 years, paying passengers rode a train in the North Bay. After the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency held an opening ceremony last Friday followed by a light weekend schedule, commuters on Monday got their first chance to ride the train to work.
We have been anticipating the launch of SMART service for nearly a decade, ever since voters in 2008 approved the sales tax measure to fund the rail agency. After several lengthy delays, including a long setback due to the recession, SMART service is finally part of the North Bay transportation landscape.
But now that the champagne and confetti are gone and the 34 daily trains have started plying the newly renovated tracks, the work for SMART is not over. There is plenty more that the agency still needs to accomplish in order to deliver the system that taxpayers were promised.
In Petaluma, several projects still need to be completed, the most significant of which is a second station on the east side of the city. SMART’s planned 70-mile train line with an accompanying bike path was largely scaled back during the recession, when sales tax dollars lagged. As a result, the agency decided to build the system in phases.
The train line from the Sonoma County Airport to San Rafael was prioritized, while most of the adjoining bike path, the second Petaluma station and extensions north to Cloverdale and south to Larkspur were put off to a later date. Though out of SMART’s hands, the coming of commuter rail was also supposed to spur transit-oriented development projects around train stations, which have yet to materialize.
Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, has promised to continue working on the missing pieces. He said SMART has a deal in place for a second station at Corona Road, and now it is up to the city of Petaluma and the developer to work out the details.
The plan would give SMART a portion of the Corona property for a station platform and a parking garage — something the downtown station lacks. In exchange, the developer would get the rights to SMART’s property adjacent to the downtown station, a prime spot for some of the transit-oriented development so promised.
If the city can work with the developer on a project that Petaluma residents find acceptable, then SMART can complete the transaction and build the second station while Petaluma will get a quality development on an otherwise blighted downtown property.
There is also movement on building the bike path through Petaluma. SMART received funding to build a segment of the path from Southpoint Boulevard to Payran Street, which, when built, will give pedestrians and cyclists another route across town.
After all the fanfare, we want SMART to be successful. In order for that to happen, the rail network must be useful and convenient. It will be more useful once the extension to Larkspur ferry is in place, giving commuters a way to seamlessly connect with transit to San Francisco. It will be more convenient if commuters have a place to park at stations, which is why the second Petaluma station and its planned 150-space parking garage is important.
Mansourian, who was hired at SMART in 2011, has shepherded the agency through tough times and delivered the first operating phase. While this is a historic milestone, we urge him and SMART’s board of directors to continue working to complete the project.