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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.

Brent Ainsworth 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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