New railroads come along about once every 10 years, less frequently it turns out than the type of solar eclipse that will dim California skies Monday morning.
So the event set for Friday in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square celebrating the start of service for the North Bay’s long-awaited commuter train will be a big deal, with speeches, a traditional Japanese blessing — a nod to origin of SMART’s green and gray rail cars — a standard American ribbon cutting and a short, free ride aboard six of the shiny new cars.
There are other highlights that Farhad Mansourian, general manager of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency, declined to disclose Friday, including the names of the dignitaries who will speak leading off the 9 a.m. event.
“Come and find out,” he said with a grin.
Mansourian said he and his staff at SMART have been working hard to insure that it is “the best ceremony we’ve seen in decades in Marin and Sonoma counties.”
It will mark a historic occasion: the return of passenger service along the refurbished Northwestern Pacific rail line that hasn’t carried people since 1958.
At 12:49 p.m. Friday, about 80 minutes after the ceremony concludes at SMART’s downtown Santa Rosa station, the first of the sleek, diesel-powered cars will roll south from the Sonoma County Airport station on Airport Boulevard. The first northbound train will leave the San Rafael station at 2:29 p.m.
All rides Friday will be free, and fares will be half price through Labor Day on Sept. 4, introducing the public to a $600 million transit system that officials project will carry up to 3,000 people on weekdays over a 43-mile line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.
It’s been 15 years since the state Legislature created SMART, nine years since Sonoma and Marin voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax to subsidize the rail service in 2008 and five years since SMART began restoring the old rail line in 2012.
Delays, controversies and a severe recession that curtailed tax revenues have marked SMART’s short life, which has been guided by Mansourian since he was named its boss by the public agency’s board in 2011.
Mansourian, 63, is a former Marin County public works director and a Novato resident who holds degrees in civil engineering and political science from Sacramento State University.
With an annual budget of about $30 million and about 180 employees, SMART operates from the second floor of a new office building on Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma.
The nascent rail line is a work in progress, with plans to complete the planned 70-mile system from Cloverdale to Larkspur on a timetable that Mansourian said depends on additional funding, largely from state and regional sources.
Mansourian sat down Friday for an interview in his office. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Of all the weeks you have been at SMART, what distinguishes this one?
“I feel like (it’s) my daughter’s wedding, when I was giving her away in the aisle... All I hope as a father is that we’ve done tremendous and now we’re going into the next era, completing (the line) north to Cloverdale and keep going south to Larkspur.”
What have you heard from people since word of the startup came out last week?