Last weekend, Farhad Mansourian was listening to a program in which five international experts were talking about the U.S. economy when they agreed that transit facilities were one of the main pillars to recovery.
That’s when Mansourian, 57, decided to take the Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit authority up on its offer to become its general manager and plow through the that has plagued the commuter rail project.
SMART made the announcement Monday that the Novato resident will be the permanent replacement for Lilian Hames, from the post in January when the lack of available funds to build the system was becoming obvious. Mansourian, who spent 31 years working for the county of Marin, most recently as its public works director, and had spent the past three months as SMART’s interim GM and trying to come up with trustworthy financial figures.
“With the support of the citizens, I think we can build this and give people a great new transportation alternative,” he said.
SMART did not announce Mansourian’s compensation, but the Marin Independent Journal reported that he would be paid $246,000 annually, about $39,000 more than his salary as public works chief. Hames was paid $176,000, according to SMART records.
The rail authority said its board reached a unanimous decision to hire Mansourian, who has overseen multimillion-dollar road, bridge and infrastructure projects. He managed the Marin County Transit Agency for 12 years and served as executive director of Marin’s Congestion Management Agency for 14 years.
Marin County Supervisor and SMART board member Judy Arnold of Novato said asking Mansourian to take the job “is an example of the cooperation and goodwill between Sonoma and Marin, as well as total confidence in Farhad’s ability to lead.
SMART was created in 2003 by the passage of a state bill by former Assemblyman Joe Nation to create a rail service between the two counties.
The voters of Marin and Sonoma passed a quarter-cent sales tax to fund the SMART service in 2008. Although the service is expected to ease traffic along Highway 101 and reduce greenhouse gases, many voters are upset that the line between Cloverdale and Larkspur has been scaled back to Santa Rosa-to-San Rafael.
According to Mansourian’s latest estimate, the cost of the initial 37-mile operating segment is $359.9 million, and funding for it is estimated at $360.2 million. He said building the segment would provide nearly 1,000 jobs starting this fall.
Mansourian cannot expect a smooth public relations ride as the rail plan comes together. A campaign to rescind the quarter-cent sales tax and kill SMART is under way. A group called is attempting to gather 15,000 signatures within a six-month span to get the initiative placed on the June 2012 ballot. If successful, it would be the first time in state history that a special sales tax was rescinded by a voter initiative.
Mike Arnold, who has fought SMART and freight rail lines at public meetings for years, questioned the wisdom of Mansourian’s hiring. He said all the people running systems such as BART, Cal Train and the metro service in Los Angeles are career railroad people.
“Ask the question, ‘Why did they appoint a guy who doesn’t have any experience running a rail authority?’ That’s the question. Duh!”
Mansourian said every massive public works project — from BART to the Golden Gate Bridge — has had detractors who have predicted failure.
“I think this is one of those crucial times for delivering for our future generations,” he said. “All put together, this will be an intellectual challenge. I’ve never turned away from a good fight and a good challenge. I am committed to bringing SMART to reality with the commitment of a lot of good folks who voted for this.”