SMART chief defends rail project to taxpayers group

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.

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