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Argus-Courier Editorial

SMART needs to get smarter

Published: Monday, July 14, 2014 at 6:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 14, 2014 at 6:33 p.m.

Almost six 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 finally forecast to be up and running by late 2016. But whether Petalumans, particularly those living on the eastside of town, will be able to easily access the new train service remains in serious doubt.

Despite the fact that Petalumans were promised two train stations when they voted to approve the SMART ballot measure in 2008, rail officials now say that when the service begins in two years there will be no east-side train station. That’s unacceptable, 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 will be very limited parking.

SMART officials blame tax revenue shortfalls, brought about by the Great Recession, as the primary reason for delaying construction of Petaluma’s east-side station. But according to a stinging report released last month by the Sonoma County Grand Jury, the historic economic downtown appears to be only part of the problem. The successful construction and future operation of the rail line is at risk, grand jurors concluded, due to the lack of adequate engagement and oversight by its 12-member board of directors.

“When boards limit their involvement and rely on management to set and enact policy,” wrote jurors,” the public can be shortchanged. A more active role and stronger oversight by SMART’s board of directors could create a more proactive culture, reducing the risks from unpredictable future events.”

After an extensive investigation, grand jurors concluded that the agency has not adequately forecast the costs of operating the rail line, or the revenues needed to underwrite those operations. “The unpredictability of operations and maintenance costs represents an enormous economic risk,” according to jurors, who also faulted the agency for its lack of transparency and poor communication with the public it is supposed to serve.

Perhaps most damning in the report’s findings is the fact that despite provisions in SMART’s administrative code calling for three standing committees –an executive committee, real estate committee and operations committee – all designed to provide a closer level of oversight not afforded by the full board, no standing committees are currently in existence.

The lack of a real estate committee might help explain the ongoing problems in securing a parcel of land upon which to locate Petaluma’s eastside train station. For nearly 10 years, SMART’s plans have 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 four 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 General Manager Farhad Mansourian in 2012 quietly began negotiating to purchase an alternate parcel: a 12.5 acre site where the former Adobe Lumberyard on Redwood Highway sits directly across the street from SMART’s new headquarters. It’s unclear whether Mansourian was acting with or without the board’s consent, and when the news became public it understandably created a great deal of public confusion and concern that persists today.

At this point, it’s clear that SMART’s failure to purchase the designated property for Petaluma’s east-side train station when the price hit rock bottom has delayed its construction and operation.

Last week, former SMART board member and current Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy suddenly began publicly advocating for SMART to take a new look at the Corona Road property, noting that a small, adjoining city-owned parcel could potentially sweeten an acquisition opportunity. Unfortunately, the real estate market today is not what it was four years ago, and this will likely result in the agency spending far more money than was necessary to purchase a site.

Clearly, this is not the way that a public agency should operate.

For whatever reason, Petalumans always seem to be on the losing end when it comes to regional transportation projects. When Measure M was passed in 2004, voters were promised it would widen the highway to six lanes. The highway was widened, except for the portion in Petaluma and south to the county line, and the tax revenues from the measure are now exhausted.

In 2008, Petaluma and Santa Rosa were each promised two train stations. For unknown reasons, Santa Rosa is now getting three train stations and Petaluma is getting just one.

If you don’t feel SMART’s board of directors are entirely clear about the need for Petalumans to be able to conveniently access the rail service when it becomes operational, you might consider attending the next SMART board meeting on Wednesday, July 16, at 1:30 p.m. at 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Suite 200 in Petaluma. Public comments are welcomed at the beginning of the meeting.

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