In a surprise move, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board has picked a Marin County administrator temporarily on loan to the rail agency to serve as its new general manager.

Farhad Mansourian, Marin County's public works director, was named SMART general manager on Monday. He has served as executive director of SMART for the past five months while on loan from Marin County.

"We believe in continuity. That was the most important issue for us," said board Chairwoman Valerie Brown.

Mansourian was not a candidate for the SMART post until the board approached him after conducting a nationwide search, Brown said.

"This board has been working together very well, in part because of Farhad," Brown said. "We felt we can advance with him. We are going through some tough times."

Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold said the board has a lot of confidence in Mansourian, who has been in the county's public works department 31 years.

"He is a beloved member of the family," Arnold said. "Farhad is the only person I can think of that can bring this project home."

The terms of the five-year contract call for a salary of $246,000 and $36,900 a year in deferred compensation, a significant raise from his predecessor at SMART. The new general manager will pay his own share of the retirement plan contribution.

Mansourian will also receive $1,154 a month toward medical benefits, $920 a month for automobile and cell phone expenses, up to $5,000 for seminars and training, and 23 vacation and 12 sick days a year.

During the search, the SMART board had said that experience working in the commute rail industry was considered a necessity.

Brown said the board was impressed, however, with Mansourian's work to reassess costs and revenues and work with local and regional commissions on funding issues.

"I was honored when they approached me if I would continue to serve," Mansourian said. "They were very pleased with the progress we have made in the last three months."

The appointment comes at a critical time for SMART, which is attempting to resolve a financial shortfall and begin construction next year.

SMART's board has already retrenched because of funding problems, settling on an initial 37-mile line from Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael.

The remainder of the 70-mile Cloverdale-to-Larkspur line, which was promised in the 2008 sales tax measure, will be built as money becomes available.

The cost of the line is now estimated to be $360 million, $25 million more than had been projected.

However, Mansourian is also estimating the cost hikes will be met by increased sales tax revenues and additional funds from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the Transportation Authority of Marin.

The commute rail line may also be delayed by one to two years because of the local, state and federal permits needed to work in wetland areas, Mansourian said.

The post, which paid $175,000 a year, has been vacant since Lillian Hames resigned in January, although Chief Financial Officer David Heath was briefly the interim general manager.