Hoped for 2016 SMART service gives way to 2017

SMART says delay pegged to engine design flaws, crossing signal problems and difficulty attracting staff.|

All signals appeared to show 2016 being the year when commuter trains would pull into North Bay stations after decades of anticipation and planning for their arrival.

The green-and-gray trains operated by the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit authority have become familiar sights and sounds on their daily test runs along the 43-mile rail line from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael.

Stations have been built, fares announced and some of the finer details debated, such as a proposed code of conduct that includes a ban on cellphone conversations aboard trains.

But what seemed inevitable took a sudden detour in October, when SMART officials announced they would be unable to meet their target of starting passenger service by the end of the year, in part due to faulty train engines. The start date has now been pushed back to late spring 2017.

“Did we wish to open up in December? Yes,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, said earlier this month at the agency’s Petaluma headquarters. “But without a doubt, we didn’t want to jeopardize public safety.”

The half-hour conversation with Mansourian in a second-floor conference room conversation was punctuated several times by the sound of horns emanating from SMART trains crossing nearby Ely Road.

Mansourian, who has earned praise and criticism for his full-steam ahead managerial approach, did not appear chastened as he reflected back on the events of 2016 that prompted the service delay.

He made the case that SMART could not have foreseen having to replace the engines on each of the 14 rail cars because of a design flaw, nor the challenges getting warning signals at crossings to work properly or the difficulty attracting staff to the high-cost North Bay.

“If there was anything that was in our control and we could have worked harder, and we had a crystal ball, then we would probably feel awful,” he said. “But there were three things that led to this - not a single one of them was in our control.”

However, Mansourian seemed more cautious about being as definitive about the start date of passenger service as he has in the past, saying several times that he and his staff are monitoring the situation and will adjust timetables accordingly. Mansourian also has promised to update SMART directors monthly on how the agency is progressing toward the goal of launching the service by late spring.

Public pressure for SMART to begin passenger service has steadily ramped up after voters in 2008 supported a sales tax measure to largely fund the transit service.

Mansourian said the “setback,” as he characterized the delay, does not diminish the progress made on a new public transit service, one that is nearing a $500 million price tag. Mansourian said progress has been “tremendous.”

He has personal incentive for SMART beginning passenger service.

The rail agency’s directors in August approved giving him a new five-year contract with an annual salary of $285,101, a 2.5 percent increase. That amount will increase to $293,655 - a 3 percent bump - on the opening day of service.

SMART directors on Dec. 7 also approved creating a new deputy general manager’s position with an annual salary of between $227,778 and $276,866.

The position fulfills the SMART board’s directive for “succession planning efforts,” Lisa Hansley, SMART’s human resources manager, stated in her report to the board.

And while Mansourian defended the expenditure as a way for the authority to compete for the best personnel, he insisted he has no plans of leaving SMART anytime soon.

“Every organization needs to know what happens,” he said. “None of us are Superman. I’m not going anywhere, as long as the board decides (to keep me).”

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