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North Novato Station Looks Like it Will Make SMART's Cut

Passenger rail station at Atherton Avenue, tentatively on the funding chopping block, is placed No. 1 on the priority list of projects to start once more start-up money is secured.

It looks like there will be a passenger train station on the north side of Novato after all.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Authority voted Wednesday to make more than $88 million in cuts to the rail line, but reprioritized the list of deferred projects, including moving the Atherton station in Novato to the top of the list for when the district nails down more construction funds.

Other deferred projects approved by the board include the replacement of a bridge over Novato Creek near Novato Community Hospital, ticket vending machines, fiber-optic cables and multiuse paths that are to run alongside the train tracks. The length of the paths will be cut by a third.

The board said the top three projects on the priority list — Atherton Station, ticket vending machines and fiber-optic cables —likely will be funded by time the train starts running in 2014 or 2015, especially since SMART is using pre-recession construction prices to estimate costs of projects.

SMART says the spending delays are necessary to help close a $109 million funding gap, the result of reduced tax revenues. The original rail line and bicycle and pedestrian path was to run 70 miles between Cloverdale and Larkspur at a cost of $695 million. The project is financed in part with a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in Marin and Sonoma counties in 2008.

Numerous residents at Wednesday's meeting raised concerns that the project they voted for three years ago has been plagued by delays, had its service area shortened and appeared to place more emphasis on housing along the rail line than transportation. 

Carole Dillon-Knutson, a Novato City Councilwoman who sits on the SMART board, was pleased that other managers understood the importance of the North Novato station when remaking the priority list. A South Novato station at Hamilton is in the clear and expected to be built by Opening Day.

 “There are 300 employees that live in Sonoma who could get on at the Atherton station,” she said. “We clearly understand how important it is, that’s why (board chair Valerie) Brown and I suggested Atherton be moved to No. 1.”

Petaluma wasn’t as lucky. The Corona Road station is No. 7 on the priority list, lowering the likelihood that it will be built in the next decade. Several board members appeared sympathetic to Petaluma’s plight and said that other alternatives should be considered.

“To whatever degree humanly possible, we need to not make enemies of our friends,” said board member Carol Russell.

Renee also asked for the Corona Road station to be moved up or not be deferred at all. She said that East Side Petaluma residents would be unlikely to come to the West Side, especially for transit, which could affect ridership on the train.

Despite all the changes, many board members praised the project, which has been in the works for nearly a decade.

“We are moving Sonoma County in the right direction,” said SMART boardmember Debora Fudge. “We are creating jobs and we are creating transportation alternatives that up until now have not been available to us. … Our vision is becoming a reality.”

"The people who need this most are the ones who are not here today," said SMART director and Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. "They are disabled, they are seniors, they are working … these are all people who need public transportation. And what this whole project is about is providing better public transportation and connectivity."

Several people spoke against making the $88 million in cuts. They said voters approved the quarter-cent sales tax on the assumption the entire 70-mile rail line and pathway would be built.

Some called for a public vote on whether the rail project should even be built. Others asked the board to postpone making the cuts and proceeding with the issuance of bonds until the district selects a new general manager and its finances improve.

"I voted for the train in 2008, but I now have voter remorse and would vote against it today," one woman wrote in a letter to the board.

Another speaker called the train project "an economic disaster." She said anything less than the full 70-mile line is comparable to "bait and switch."

Board member Al Boro, the mayor of San Rafael, made the motion to make the cost reductions. He said the train project remains a public asset and an alternative to Highway 101, which is congested through the two counties.

Zane took aim at critics who call the project "a train to nowhere."

"I don't think the sixth largest city in the state is 'nowhere,'" she said in reference to Santa Rosa.

The board also unanimously approved a resolution authorizing and approving the issuance of up to $200 million in sales tax revenue bonds to help pay for the project. SMART Interim General Manager David Heath said the actual bond sale is a few months away and the district expects to get bids on the project
in early or mid-July.

— Bay City News Contributed to this report.

Pam Drew April 21, 2011 at 03:19 PM
"North Novato Station Looks Like it Will Make SMART's Cut" bewilders me as a headline for the article which follows it. The North Novato Station has been bumped. It did not 'make the cut'. It may well be reinstated if conditions continue to improve regarding the Fireman's Fund business park as well as the parcels north of it. As always, it is a question of commerce and politics. The irony is that the sort of transit oriented development which was slated for the Fireman's Fund urban village/employment destination saves a higher percentage of carbon emissions than does residential transit oriented development according to recent research. If, instead of having a "root for our team mentality", we actually examined our urban planning for efficacy, we might get better outcomes.
Mike Arnold April 21, 2011 at 03:21 PM
Your headline is very misleading. Cutting out Atherton wasn't about its cost. It was about compliance with MTC's TOD policy. As a result, Atherton station is unlikely to be funded, because -- despite what the Board said -- the MTC has said SMART must comply with their ridiculous TOD policy. And if SMART builds Atherton station, it will be out of compliance. Imagine a transportation agency enforcing a policy that lowers transit ridership. Hard to believe, but it just happened.
Rick Fraites April 21, 2011 at 06:20 PM
Sonoma's Zane and Marin's Boro need a harsh reality check. Currently, the only progress being made is the increased level of stupefying retorical statements that these two seem so capable of presenting when faced with directing a rail system that is running on empty. The SMART transportation 'alternative' is just that, an alternative. But this alternative, when fully(?) implemented, will removed a minute amount of traffic from the 101 commute. There is no bang for the buck here. SMART is more of a sentimental trip down memory lane than a trip that most commuters can benefit from. Zane can spare us with her social guilt trip about the poor and needy. A transportation system is already up and running and taking care of those who are less fortunate in our society. It's called BUSES. Marin Transit has doubled its ridership in a very short period of time. The buses takes people where they want to go, or close to it. SMART takes the commuter to a station where many will then have to hop a bus to be shuttled to a site near their job, if it is along the shuttle route. If not, there is always a taxi for the SMART rider to toss away more fare money getting to the job site. BTW, Ms. Zane needs to know that Santa Rosa ranks 27th in population of cities in California, right behind Garden Grove. Perhaps her goal is to get to number six in the state, but that honor now belongs to Sacramento.
Edwin Drake April 22, 2011 at 05:09 AM
Will some journalist please ask the SMART Board, "How little would need to be built before you'd be willing to say, 'this isn't what the voters approved' and toss in the towel on this? This entire SMART project is a wistful waste of tax dollars, trying to "bring back" something that never existed here. And it's a sop to sprawl, allowing living far from work. Plus, exactly what's the goal: is it mass transit, or is it lowering of carbon footprints? Either way, as Rick Fraites said above, bus works better, cheaper, more flexible. SMART is the WORST example of government run amok, doing what they want to do no matter how the financial situation changes.
Eddie Chivas April 22, 2011 at 02:26 PM
This is not what the voters agreed. Money is needed in other areas and should be redirected or at least the new plan needs to be voted again.
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) April 24, 2011 at 01:06 AM
Pam: The North Novato SMART station remains on the deferred list, but the board placed it No. 1 on the priority list and added that it's likely the station will be built by the rail service's opening day. That's why the headline said what it said.
Mark Schoenbaum April 24, 2011 at 04:13 AM
SMART is a joke. They made all these grand promises backed by pie-in-the-sky projections and basically lied to the bike coalition to get their support and activism. This project was never about transportation. Besides the fact that even if implemented as planned it woiuld have an insignificant impact on transportation or traffic congestion, it is and has always been about enriching the promoters,developers, and managers of the project. They have been DYING to get the bonds issued so they can pay themselves NOW and let the chips fall where they may. When it turns out they are still short they will come back to the voters and claim they are so close but they need even more money to complete half of what was proposed. Time for people to see that the emperor is naked and ask for their money back, before they issue the bonds and put the taxpayers on the hook for their salaries, benefits, consultants fees and, by the way, no train.
Edwin Drake April 24, 2011 at 04:36 AM
And yet the bicycle coalitions fell for it. Go wonder! Boy, they are a sharp and unselfish group.
Edwin Drake April 26, 2011 at 05:46 AM
Here's something interesting. NO Atherton station, but in Cotati and Rohnert Park, they might be only one-mile apart. see Patch: http://rohnertpark.patch.com/articles/rohnert-park-getting-closer-to-moving-smart-station-to-future-downtown
John Parnell June 08, 2011 at 08:28 PM
Brent, I have to say that I agree with every preceding comment. Mike Arnold is right about this. It may supposedly be number one on the 'deferred list', but despite Atherton giving SMART between 20-30% of their ridership (per their own estimates), they will NOT build it just to fudge the TOD numbers. As SMART was told by MTC at their January Board meeting, they know that they only way they will ever be able to build more than just San Rafael - Santa Rosa is to either raise the sales tax, or pray for federal funding someday, but they won't ever qualify until only after we have the equivalent of 17 Millworks buildings surrounding every station. That is why SMART has formally adopted this forced urbanization T.O.D. policy of high-density housing being a necessity. Other cuts made to come up with that $88 million they slashed include: -knowingly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by taking out the fiber optics & PA system, and -eliminating the ticket vending machines, so their will be NO WAY TO BUY A TICKET. Do you really think they will put Atherton ahead of those?

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