SMART settlement paves way for bike, pedestrian path projects

A settlement between the rail agency and bicycle advocates will help lead to a timeline for building sections of a pathway that was a selling point when voters approved the train in 2008.|

Cycling advocates say a last-minute agreement hammered out with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials will prioritize a bike and pedestrian path that voters demanded in 2008 when they approved construction of the commuter rail line.

The agreement, brokered by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, calls for establishing a list of higher priority pathway segments and identifying funding sources for those projects.

Cycling advocates had been threatening to sue SMART over a section of pathway planned in San Rafael, a dispute that more generally speaks to concerns the rail agency is failing to meet its obligations to build the promised network. The agreement, for now, appears to have addressed those concerns.

“Overall, this is a very, very positive development. It increases hope that the path will actually be built,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, indicated the deal would provide a way for the agency and cycling advocates to “be on the same page.”

“By coming up with a priority list, we can focus our effort and go get money for those projects,” he said Tuesday.

However, a finished pathway running the length of the rail line is likely years or decades away - if ever it becomes reality. A critical selling point for a quarter-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2008 to pay for commuter rail, the pathway is now being built in chunks by a variety of entities as funding becomes available.

SMART, which is planning to launch commuter rail service a year from now, has awarded construction contracts for seven pathway segments in Sonoma and Marin counties, according to a 2014 strategic plan document posted on the agency’s website. On Wednesday, SMART’s board of directors approved a $4.2 million contract for another 2.4-mile section of the path between East Cotati Avenue and Golf Course Drive in Rohnert Park.

Other agencies, including Caltrans, have completed shorter sections of the pathway, including along Highway 101 south of Petaluma. The city of Santa Rosa also has completed a stretch between Eighth Street and College Avenue.

SMART officials declined to say whether any construction work has begun or been completed on any of the pathway projects it has specifically authorized. Critics, including those within the cycling community, have latched on to that refusal to support their contention that rail officials have essentially relegated the pathway to second-tier status in violation of mandates under the sales tax approved by voters in 2008, known as Measure Q.

“While we understand that Measure Q funding is limited, voters still expect a proportional financial commitment to the pathway,” said Jim Elias, executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “Zero Measure Q dollars devoted to the pathway is not proportional. That needs to change.”

During a break in the SMART board of directors meeting in Petaluma Wednesday, Mansourian said questions about how much pathway the agency has, or will, build using Measure Q money amounts to a “gotcha point.”

“It is only designed to mislead members of the public,” he said.

He made the case that just as plans for the rail line have been scaled back - to an initial 42-mile segment from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael - SMART also has had to scale back its initial ambitions for the pathway.

“The new game plan is we’re not going to Cloverdale, we’re not going to Larkspur yet and we’re not building all of the bike path we’d like to build,” he said. “Together, we need to come up with a strategy of how do we accomplish that.”

A large funding shortfall which Mansourian and other SMART officials have tied to the drop in sales tax revenue stemming from the economic recession has impeded both the rail and pathway construction. Mansourian said the rail agency currently is short $200 million to complete the entire roughly 70-mile Larkspur-to-Cloverdale project, about $50 million of which he said represents costs for the pathway.

By the time rail service debuts next year, SMART will have spent $30 million on the pathway, using a combination of Measure Q funds, bonds and grants, Mansourian said.

In the meantime, the dispute that led to Huffman intervening last week highlights what are likely to be continuing tensions between pathway advocates and SMART. It also spotlights permitting challenges the rail agency is facing with the pathway at a number of locations, due to environmental concerns and other reasons.

SMART officials said the pathway was never intended to parallel the entire length of the rail line, but will meander and use nearby side streets in some places.

An off-rail route could be the outcome in the case of the disputed mile-long section of the pathway intended to be built along the track west of Highway 101 in downtown San Rafael, between Second Street and Andersen Drive.

Mansourian said several regulatory agencies refused to sign off on SMART’s plan to run the pathway atop a newly constructed drainage ditch and culvert along the agency’s right-of-way. The alternative plan called for routing the path onto surface streets, a plan cycling advocates denounced as a danger to the public.

“We reached the point where we felt for us to advance the pathway message, we had to do it by considering filing a lawsuit,” Elias, with the Marin County bike coalition, said.

The group had until Nov. 27 to file the suit. Huffman, contacted by representatives on both sides, convened a meeting at his San Rafael office on Wednesday last week to mediate the dispute. Under the agreement, SMART will work with officials from the city of San Rafael and Marin County on designing the pathway. Project funding is anticipated to include $1 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Mansourian said there are at least a half-dozen areas, mostly in Marin County, where unexpected permitting issues have cropped up, exposing the rail agency to the threat of litigation. He declined to identify those locations.

Mansourian said SMART is in its third year and has spent $1.4 million in an effort to gain federal environmental compliance to construct the pathway between the Marin Civic Center to Guerneville Road.

“We cannot just wake up tomorrow and build something,” he said.

The Huffman-brokered agreement also calls for the creation of an ad-hoc committee that will include representatives of cycling coalitions in Marin and Sonoma counties, as well as those representing SMART.

“Does this mean all of the grievances related to the pathway have been resolved? I don’t think so,” Huffman said. “But I think it’s an important step.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Derek Moore at 521-5336 or ? On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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