SMART gets $6.6M for train purchase
Sonoma County officials, partnering with their colleagues from Marin, have pictured a harmonious future in which rail riders, cyclists and pedestrians peacefully coexist. But there have been a few bumps in the path to perfection.
On Dec. 10 the Sonoma County Transportation Authority board of directors awarded $6.6 million in CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation Air Quality) funds to the SMART (Sonoma Marin Rail Transit) program for the purchase of an additional train car set.
On the face of it, this use of the funds, which, according to Caltrans is to fund transportation improvement projects or programs that “contribute to attainment or maintenance of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone and carbon monoxide,” is a wholly appropriate use of CMAQ monies.
The funds, though, are one of a very few “pots” of money available for bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvement. And the $6.6 million request added at the very last minute ran through the approval process like a runaway freight train.
At the Dec. 16 meeting of the SMART board of directors, where the board formally approved the purchase of the car set, SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said, “This was probably the fastest approval in the history of the SCTA.”
SMART announced its plans to make the special request on Dec. 6, only a few days before the meeting. At the Dec. 10 SCTA meeting, the $6.6 million in funding to SMART passed by a 10-2 vote.
“We didn’t like the short turn-around time,” Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told the Index-Tribune. “There was only a window of three business days from the time that we and the members of the SCTA board learned of this request.”
“Sometimes when you’ve got a project that you don’t have 100 percent funding for when you start, when money becomes available to extend that project, you move mountains to get it. That’s a lot of money out there,” said Valerie Brown, the outgoing 1st District Supervisor, who chairs the SCTA board and also chairs the SMART board.
The rush was necessary because there was an additional $10 million in MTC money sitting on the table that SMART would have lost if the cars could not be ordered, because they would not have been able to show that they had enough trains to support the amount of rail being built, according to Brown. “The reality is the train is what’s going to build the pathways for bicycles and everyone else.”
All the ordered cars will arrive in October 2013. If the order had not gone through, more cars couldn’t have been ordered until 2018. “By that time, we would have lost the $10 million,” said Brown. The approved route, including multi-use paths (MUPs) for bikes and pedestrians now extends though Guerneville.
“It was good policy and it was good politics,” Brown said. “It was timely. It was appropriate. It got the (SMART route extended) to the airport. It sent a message to MTC that we were putting forward a proposal for the money for the cars.”
“We understand the explanation, but we still would have like to have had more time,” Lupien said. “We want to see SMART succeed as a train and pathway project. We certainly understand the SCTA’s board’s position and the decision, and see that it would have been hard for them to make another decision at this point because of the time crunch.”
Members of the Sonoma and Marin Bicycle Coalition met with SMART staff on Monday to voice their concerns about both the CMAQ funds and what they see as a lack of vision for the inclusion of multi-use pathways – on what sections are going to built when, with estimated dates of completion.
“The overall plan is rail and pathway. Nobody voted for just a train. It’s incumbent upon SMART to build a train and pathway. So we want to know that plan for making that happen,” said Lupien. “We want to see a work plan.”
Both Lupian and Marin County Bicycle Coalition’s Andy Perry spoke at the Wednesday SMART board meeting. At the meeting Perry reminded Brown, who presided over her final meeting as director, “Cyclists were a major part of getting SMART Measure Q passed,” and he asked for, “a concrete document that I can wave that I can show them how that will happen.”
SMART Director Jake MacKenzie made a similar request for a map of the pathway and what will be under construction when at the Aug. 15 meeting of the board. At that time he was told the board would be provided with such a report or document. Perry pointed out that it still had not been provided with one as of the Dec. 16 meeting.
Brown responded, “We are connected at the hip with all of the advocates for bicycles and pedestrians."
Mansourian said, “Their request simply makes sense and has merit. What we have to figure out is the details.” In regards to the pathways plan he said, “We have accomplished a lot, but we’ve been so busy we forgot to stop and tell everyone what we’re doing.” He promised to share the first report in a couple of months and a “much more comprehensive” report in the spring, and he also said SMART would work more closely with the bicycle coalitions to keep the public up to date.
Toward the close of the meeting Brown, who is retiring this year, was honored for her service to the board. The tributes included, among other things, a rendition of Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler.” Brown, they implied, knew when to hold ‘em, knew when to fold ‘em, and knew when to walk away.