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SMART general manager Farhad Mansourian looks to train’s start and beyond

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

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?

“‘Congratulations, well done.’ ‘We knew it would be done.’ ‘Wish we were there.’ A lot of people from Washington, D.C. and across the nation saying ‘Wow, what an achievement.’ In the train world, this is a big deal. Every decade or so a new train agency is created so this doesn’t happen often.”

What do you expect in terms of ridership Friday?

“Very full. People have been paying for this. 70 percent of people voted for this and paid for it. You know, when people pay something out of their own pockets it means they are making a selection and we are humbled to be able to deliver it in such a short time.”

What’s your benchmark for SMART’s success?

“The benchmark is public service. We think as we prove to the public that we are dependable, that we are reliable, and those whose origin and destination and schedule matches ours — this is an option they’ve never ever had before. They were captured on the Highway 101 parking lot and now they have an option.”

How will you measure success?

“Ridership, smiles, thank you and some relief on Highway 101 as people move away from it. It won’t happen overnight. It will take a long time. You know, BART didn’t start carrying 400,000 people a day on the first day or first week. They’re in their 40th year now and that’s what they’re doing.”

In what way are you most prepared for the launch?

“Operation is one unit. Everything works together and operation as a whole unit is ready. We keep exercising and we’ve been ready.

What still needs to be done?

“Shining the cars and making sure everything is vacuumed five times over. That’s all we’re looking at. Operationally we’re ready and in a complex system like this you never stop. There is no finish line or beginning line. It’s constant. Our operation as of Friday will go to 24/7 for eternity.

What do you want new riders to know about SMART?

“We’re committed to give them the best experience and safest experience ever. So if you see something (wrong), say something. This is your railroad so please give us your feedback. We appreciate it and that’s how we can improve.”

Why did federal approval of the positive train control system take so long this year?

“When you deal with public safety, when you deal with public life, it’s our job to make sure it is safe. It is their job to make sure that we’ve done our job. We very much welcome that. And just for the record, it didn’t take them long.”

What about last year’s delay?

“The first delay was as a result of engine failure in Canada (involving engines similar to ours built by the same manufacturer). The option for SMART was — our engines didn’t fail so move on, open your doors and hope nothing happens. Or, before you open up you become conservative, you don’t jeopardize public safety or convenience and you delay and make sure every one of those engines is replaced. Frankly, we don’t see that as a delay, we see that as a sign of how much public safety matters to us as opposed to just keeping an arbitrary date for political reasons.”

A one-way trip from Santa Rosa to San Rafael costs $9.50, and a round-trip $19 without discounts. A monthly pass is $200. What has SMART done in response to complaints fares were too high?

Mansourian noted the rail board established discounts, including a half-price rate for seniors, youths and disabled passengers, along with flat-rate passes. “Unfortunately, some stories misled people and took the absolute highest potential rate and kept selling it as that’s the rate that everybody’s going to be paying. We’re confident that it is affordable, especially when you compare it with how much time you save on Highway 101.”

SMART’s current schedule still includes 90-minute gaps during some peak commute times. Is there room to improve the schedule with trains running more often?

“Absolutely, but in order for us to put on additional trains we need to hire more engineers, more conductors, more signal technicians and more vehicle technicians. Finding them is not a problem, paying them the salary that our board has established is not a problem, but getting them to come here and be able to afford the housing and the standard of living here has been the problem.”

Why did SMART order four more cars?

“Because we anticipate growth and we’d like to put in more schedules. The farther you go and the more often you run, then you need more vehicles.”

What are your future plans?

“We are already working on the design for a Larkspur extension, scheduled to go into service by 2019.” At the same time, he said, SMART is working to find funds to go to Windsor (scheduled for 2021) and securing funds to reach Healdsburg and Cloverdale. “You talk to Napa folks, who’ve been calling, they’d like us to start working on the Highway 37 extension because that has become a parking lot. We already have rail lines there.”

How long do you expect to stay at SMART?

“When I’m done at Cloverdale then I think that’s all we’re going to do.”

What’s the timetable for completing the 70-mile line from Cloverdale to Larkspur?

“When we know we can get to Windsor, then I will give that answer."

What’s been the biggest challenge of the past six months?

“Hiring and retaining operations staff. We have very high standards. We are getting the best operators in the country but the housing and the standard of living in Marin and Sonoma County has become very challenging. We have engineers and conductors who commute all the way from Pittsburg. That’s two hours each way.”