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Downtown parking not very smart

Three months after SMART launched its commuter rail service in the North Bay, the trains are so full that the agency is even adding a third car to some of its trains. This is great news since every commuter who rides the train means one less car contributing to the traffic jam on Highway 101 and spewing greenhouses gases into the atmosphere.

We are happy that the train has been popular in its early days, but the large ridership has created an ancillary problem in downtown Petaluma: a lack of street parking for area businesses. If only we could say this was an unforeseen consequence, but many people anticipated this problem years ago during the rail agency’s planning stages.

To its credit, SMART created a 50-space dirt parking lot on land the rail agency owned near the downtown station. But ridership has exceeded the supply of parking spaces, and spillover cars have been parking along East D Street and other side streets around the station. Area business owners have complained and say that it is due to commuters since the cars stay all day during weekdays. The problem only started with the launch of SMART in late August, they say.

The solution to this problem is twofold. First, parking regulations near the downtown station need to be changed to discourage all day street parking by commuters using the train. Second, officials must create more station-area parking to accommodate riders and ensure the train’s continued success.

Both of these are problems for the city of Petaluma. SMART is in the business of laying track and making sure the trains run on time, while the city has the ability to regulate land use and on-street parking. The city should enforce a parking time limit and distribute residential parking passes for the area around the downtown station.

Establishing a time limit, say three hours, for parking on East D Street and other side streets would discourage commuters who leave their cars in the morning and return in the evening. This, however, would penalize employees of local businesses who park on the street for work, or residents who live in the neighborhood. Many of those single-family homes are occupied by large extended families and there is not sufficient off-street parking to accommodate everyone.

The city should give businesses and residents in the neighborhood parking passes to allow them to park on the street all day long. Anyone without a parking sticker would be subject to time limits, which would include commuters.

In the longer term, officials must address the larger issue of creating more station-area parking. SMART cut a deal with a developer, who owns a parcel along the tracks at Corona Road, to build a second Petaluma station and a mixed-use development next to the downtown station.

It is now up to the city’s development process to shepherd these projects along. Given the public benefit that these two projects promise — more parking for rail commuters and much needed housing — the city should be expedient in moving them forward while still ensuring that the developments are appropriate for our community.

At the parcel on Corona Road, currently an ugly, muddy lot used to store various trucks and industrial equipment, the city could have a beautiful new SMART station with a 150-space parking lot that will ease the downtown parking crunch. Right next door, another developer is building the 200-home Brody Ranch project, and those new residents would certainly benefit from an adjacent rail station.

The downtown parcel next to the existing station has long been a blight on the community. It has long served as a rail yard and most recently was used to store equipment that SMART used to reconstruct the train tracks. The developer envisions a progressive mixed-use project that encourages residents to walk and bike to nearby shops and restaurants. The residents could ditch their cars and take the adjacent train.

As an added bonus, the city could require this project to include public parking for SMART commuters, since the development would not need as many parking spaces for residents as it is geared toward walkability. In the interim, the developer should use the parcel to expand the existing 50-space lot.

With good planning and policies in place, we can solve Petaluma’s station-area parking problem and ensure SMART’s continued popularity.