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.