In pursuit of a runaway train
Published: Monday, January 21, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 2:30 p.m.
More than four years after voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax measure to fund its construction, the long awaited Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter rail system is expected to be up and running in Petaluma by 2016. But whether Petalumans, particularly those living on the eastside of town, will be able to easily access the new train service remains doubtful.
Despite the fact that Petalumans were promised two train stations when they voted to approve the SMART ballot measure in 2008, rail officials say that when the service begins in three years there will be no east-side train station. That’s very disappointing, especially since approximately two-thirds of Petaluma’s population lives on the eastside and would have to drive across town during rush hour to catch the train at the Lakeville Street station where there is very limited parking.
SMART officials blame tax revenue shortfalls, brought about by the recession, as the primary reason for delaying construction of Petaluma’s east-side station. But recent statements and actions by SMART officials point to a much different reason Petalumans are about to be short-changed in their ability to access the new commuter rail line.
For more than eight years, SMART’s plans called for building a train station on a 6.5 acre parcel of land at the corner of McDowell Boulevard and Corona Road. After the real estate market tanked, and SMART had the opportunity to purchase the property in a foreclosure sale two years ago for less that 20 percent of its fair market value -— which would have saved taxpayers a bundle — SMART failed to act. Following years spent dithering over whether, when or how to acquire the parcel, SMART officials this week declared they would not be looking at any properties for the east-side station until “additional funding is identified” to purchase the land and “conversations” are held with city officials “on the best station location based on available properties at that time.”
Say what? Why would conversations be required with city officials on where to site the station when the city’s General Plan, adopted five years ago, clearly shows the Corona Road property as the city’s future east-side train station?
And because the current property owner has offered to sell the site at a very low price, along with highly attractive financing options, SMART’s statements about not having the resources to acquire the property are not credible.
Since there is no lack of clarity on where the city would like the station to be located, and because financing the property’s acquisition is not a problem, there must be another reason for delaying Petaluma’s second train station.
Clues to that ulterior reason emerged last summer when it was made public that SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian was negotiating behind the scenes to purchase the 12.5 acre site of the former Adobe Lumberyard on Redwood Highway that sits directly across the street from SMART’s new headquarters. That’s where Mansourian wants Petaluma’s second train station to be located. His failure to secure purchase of the Corona property was not due to any bureaucratic ineptitude, but is instead the result of a carefully calculated strategy.
For Mansourian to say that SMART lacks the resources to purchase property for a second train station in the city while simultaneously negotiating to buy an alternative parcel for that very purpose is troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is an apparent lack of candor and transparency. After all, this is a public agency, not someone’s private fiefdom.
SMART’s failure to take fiscally prudent steps to purchase the designated property for Petaluma’s east-side train station will certainly delay its construction and operation, and could well result in the agency spending more money than was necessary to secure and develop it. All of which is unacceptable to Petaluma taxpayers who were promised and expect two train stations.
Until now, Petalumans had no representation on the SMART board of directors. This week, it was announced that South County Supervisor David Rabbit has been appointed to the SMART board of directors and that he would make securing a second train station in Petaluma a key priority in his new role.
We wish him luck in achieving that objective. We also hope he is successful in making SMART’s operations and activities more transparent and responsive to the Petaluma citizenry who have the right to expect more from public officials on how their tax monies are being used.
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