Farhad Mansourian, head of the $360 million Sonoma-Marin commute rail project, went into the lion's den Thursday, speaking to the Sonoma County Taxpayers' Association.

"I don't think it is any surprise that the association was not a supporter of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail District," said Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. "But now that we have the district, we still have an interest in seeing the agency use taxpayer resources effectively and efficiently."

In that regard, Atkin said after the meeting, "there is still work to do."

Mansourian, who has been SMART's general manager for a year, spent an hour talking to the group, fielding questions, stressing the money he believes he has saved the district and defending the need for an alternative transportation system.

"The congestion on Highway 101, is it going to get worse?" asked Mansourian, who spent three decades in Marin's public works department. "I've widened 101 many times in Marin and look at it today ... parking lot. Look at Sonoma County ... parking lot."

SMART initially is building a $360 million line from Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael. That's a 40-mile route as compared to the 70 miles from Cloverdale to Larkspur that was promised voters in 2008.

It is financed by a quarter cent sales tax and by local, regional, state and federal funds.

Association members challenged whether SMART will carry enough riders to be effective, questioned whether public trust has been eroded by SMART's financial difficulties and urged SMART to undertake pension reform as it gets ready to hire more employees.

Mansourian said he couldn't say specifically what the number of weekday riders will be, but believes that people will take a 55-minute ride on SMART between downtown Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael to avoid a 90-minute drive, and believes weekend tourist traffic will be greater than expected.

The district's financial difficulties were caused by a recession that depressed sales tax revenues and could not have been foreseen, Mansourian said.

"You are huge on saying live within your means," said Mansourian, addressing the association members. "When the SMART board phased the project in, they lived within their means."

SMART was criticized for seeking to block the effort by a group of critics, RepealSMART, to put the sales tax before voters again in November and for spending money on a radio and newspaper ad campaign. The critics failed to gather enough signatures to force a ballot measure.

Mansourian said he could not predict when the train might be extended to Cloverdale, but it was SMART's intention to build the full Cloverdale-to-Larkspur system.

Mansourian was applauded following the speech, but it was doubtful any minds were changed.

"I think it was a productive dialogue," Atkin said. "I don't think it changed that we are highly skeptical of commute rail in a rural area that doesn't connect to a major city."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.