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SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian announces he will retire in August

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian will retire from his post in August after 10 years running the passenger rail agency and decades of government service in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Mansourian announced his retirement to the SMART Board of Directors at its Wednesday afternoon meeting, saying he will step way when his current contract ends in August for family reasons. Mansourian told the agency’s directors he wanted to focus on being a grandfather and husband.

“This immigrant escaping from the hell hole of Ayatollahs was able to become a public servant for 42 years,” said Mansourian, with is originally from Iran. “Forty two years of public service is my way of expressing my gratitude to my new country”

“I now must devote more time to my family,” he said.

Mansourian’s decision was not entirely unexpected, said SMART Chair and Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt.

“He knew when his contract was up and he was trying to decide what he wanted to do,” Rabbitt said in an interview. Rabbitt had a heads up on the announcement, while the rest of the board learned during the meeting, he said.

A group of SMART board members will be convened to work on a secession plan, Rabbitt said.

With Mansourian at the helm, SMART went from a voter-approved concept along a lightly-used freight rail corridor to a modern passenger train system operating on 45 miles of rebuilt track between Larkspur and Santa Rosa. Mansourian, a former head of public works in Marin County, was brought on to build the system, roping in federal and state money to supplement a tax-supported project that has cost about $653 million to date.

“Getting this train rolling would be the accomplishment of a lifetime,” said Barbara Pahre, the board’s vice chair, praising Mansourian’s tenure during the board meeting. “And by my math I think you did it in about six years from when you came on board to when that first train rolled.”

Mansourian has been the public face of an agency that has marked highs and lows since service launched in August 2017, carrying more than 700,000 total passengers in each of the first two years of service while still struggling to fill many trains, especially on the weekend.

The agency suffered a massive blow of public confidence at the ballot box in March 2020, when voters rejected SMART’s bid — and Mansourian’s personal appeal — for an early extension of the quarter-cent sales tax that supports operations.

Mansourian’s leadership, too, could be polarizing, split between camps of ardent supporters who saw his often unilateral command as an asset for a nascent transit system and staunch critics who said the agency lacked transparency and was not meeting promises made to voters who approved the system in 2008.

Under his leadership, the agency steadfastly refused to disclose more detailed daily ridership numbers. When it finally did so under mounting public pressure in late 2019, those figures obtained by The Press Democrat showed a 30% drop in weekend ridership from the first full year of service to the second, resulting in an overall drop of 2.2% during that period.

Until then, SMART had not provided data to the public or its governing board showing any declines in ridership.

“It confirms what I’ve said for a long time,” longtime SMART critic and Novato financial consultant Mike Arnold said at the time. “It’s a suburban rail system that does not serve a highly dense employment center where people can walk to their jobs. That’s the Achilles’ heel of the SMART system.”

SMART officials rejected that characterization. Rabbitt joined other SMART leaders on Wednesday in describing Mansourian as a champion for the system.

“I believe that staff has great respect for him and he has great respect for staff,” Rabbitt said. “He’s the guy you want in the foxhole next to you.”

Throughout his tenure, Mansourian has acted as a kind of lightning rod where many of the bolts were aimed more at SMART itself, the longtime board member said. The transit project has always been controversial, facing numerous uphill battles with voters.

“It’s a big project for two relatively small counties,” Rabbitt said. “People always find an excuse for why it shouldn’t be done.”

Mansourian’s continued leadership was an open question last year after the defeat of Measure I. Some of his critics, including longtime SMART foes, openly called for his removal. But the SMART board remained supportive and members’ praise was universal in public comments on Wednesday.

“There is no SMART if there is no Farhad,“ said Santa Rosa mayor Chris Rogers.

SMART serves 12 stations, with plans to reach Windsor by sometime next year. Amid the pandemic, its silver-and-green diesel fueled cars have operated on a limited weekday schedule, without weekend service, though the board has discussed restoring service as COVID-19 vaccinations continue and the economy begins to pick back up.

Long-term plans call for extension of service to Healdsburg and eventually to Cloverdale, the northern terminus of the 70-mile line that one day is meant to include a parallel bike and pedestrian path. About a third of that pathway is built. In total, those rail extensions and path projects are slated to cost more than $440 million.

Working out of SMART’s Petaluma headquarters, Mansourian has for years topped the list of Sonoma County’s highest paid public officials. His salary last year netted him $319,595 in base pay, up from $246,000 base pay when he was hired in 2011.

Previously, he served for nine years as the public works director in Marin County, where he began his career as a junior civil engineer after graduating from Sacramento State, where he left with degrees in civil engineering and political science.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

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