Sonoma County supervisors at odds over location of proposed 3rd Santa Rosa SMART station

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Sonoma County supervisors are jostling behind the scenes on the location of a possible third SMART station in Santa Rosa or on its outskirts, with two members of the five-person board planning to ask for the money to study a site in Fulton at a county meeting next month.

Supervisors James Gore and Lynda Hopkins are pressing for the Fulton location and have both recently met with Farhad Mansourian, general manager of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, about a plan that would see the county pay for a feasibility study for the proposed station near Fulton and River roads, just north of city limits.

But Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year member of the SMART board of directors, would prefer to see a potential third station for the city’s 175,000 people in the southwestern area of Santa Rosa, near Roseland. That part of town has a large Latino population and could benefit from the increased access to public transit, she said.

Gore and Hopkins, however, believe a commuter rail stop at the Fulton location — 1.5 miles from the existing station near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport — would offer improved connection to the rail line for residents in their districts, spanning the north and west county.

“We have extraordinarily limited access to the SMART train in west county, and really no effective access at all,” said Hopkins, whose district includes the Sonoma Coast, Russian River area and Sebastopol. “Enhancing regional transit access, in my mind, is critical to facilitating economic development and reducing congestion.”

The two supervisors have requested a discussion item be placed on a Board of Supervisors’ agenda in October and plan to request up to $100,000 of the county’s yearly contingency funds to pay for the study. The analysis would determine whether the site is too close to the airport stop or create other unforeseen snags in the system, said Gore. His district takes Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale, as well as the unincorporated areas of Larkfield-Wikiup, Geyserville and Fulton.

“This is just to answer the first question of is it feasible and is it beneficial,” he said. “If yes, then we’ll go and say, ‘OK, it’s possible, do we want to do it, do we have political will and bandwidth to get that kind of money (for construction) while not derailing the core mission of SMART?’”

The three supervisors say they have yet to discuss the matter to avoid violating the Brown Act, a state law governing public meetings. Zane said the Roseland-area site would be closer to higher-density housing going up in southwest Santa Rosa, as well as offer better public transportation options for lower-income and Latino residents who are not riding the train in representative numbers.

“We should put SMART stations where people who are often disadvantaged in terms of public transit,” she said. “And that’s a high-density area, and it’s becoming more and more so all the time. If we’re going to do a study in terms of where we would get our biggest bang for our buck and where the need is for another station in Santa Rosa, we should look at all possibilities.”

She said she was not against a Fulton station but said that one in Roseland should come first.

Latinos make up just 15% of SMART’s ridership, according to results from SMART ridership surveys last year. The majority of passengers — 77% — identified themselves as white, with 95% of all riders saying they primarily speak English, and only 4% are Spanish speakers. The average SMART rider also reported making more than $97,000 a year — more than twice the median individual income in Sonoma County, according to census data.

At SMART board meetings, Zane has frequently stated that public transit should be for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and the North Bay’s commuter rail agency should bolster its efforts to ensure it is meeting that need. SMART will consider reviewing, and possibly lowering, its ticket prices as another way to grow ridership after the end of the year, when service is scheduled to begin to Larkspur and a new stop is added in downtown Novato.

Hopkins, whose district actually includes Roseland, said she has not heard as strong a request among those constituents for increased access to SMART as those in west county.

The 13,000 residents of the lower Russian River are particularly lacking in rail service, she said. She noted limited parking at the SMART airport station as well as infrequent buses from Guerneville to the station in Rohnert Park that taken an hour and a half.

The distance between Santa Rosa’s downtown station in Railroad Square station and its closest station to the south, in Rohnert Park, is 6½ miles. A station along the existing rail line in the Roseland area would be about 2-to-2½ miles south of the Railroad Square stop.

Through a SMART spokesman, Mansourian said the agency has no preference on the location of a third station in Santa Rosa, but would be happy to conduct an analysis for the Board of Supervisors to evaluate options.

If a majority of supervisors approve the study at the October meeting, it could open up the door for the Fulton project just outside of Santa Rosa.

The money would go to SMART to pay a consultant to perform the review, which could take up to three months for the findings.

Gore said he has yet to approach the Santa Rosa City Council with the idea because it remains too early in the process. No timeline has been established for any construction project.

In Gore’s district, SMART has the $55 million in capital funds to extend service to Windsor and expects to do so by the end of 2021, but has not been able to identify when it might come up with its own estimate of $364 million to complete its planned northern terminus in Cloverdale, 22 miles further up the rail line.

Along the existing 43-mile line, three cities — Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Novato — have two stations. Adding a third for Santa Rosa could exceed $10 million, according to Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt.

“Where it would come from, I don’t know,” said Rabbitt, a SMART board member. “I look forward to my colleagues presenting what their thoughts are, how much would come from outside sources, if any, and how long it would take. The idea is great, but you have to have a plan, and the plan has to deal with all the dollars.”

Novato, home to less than 60,000 people, is getting its new downtown station — its third — at a cost of over $7 million, according to Mayor Eric Lucan, a SMART board member. The city ponied up $4 million, and the rest came from regional funds and outside grants.

SMART has estimated the cost of a long-planned second station in Petaluma on the city’s east side at $11 million. The rail agency will pick up the tab to build it because it was part of the original 70-mile line when voters passed the sales tax to fund the system in 2008.

SMART’s plans did not call for more than two stations in either Novato or Santa Rosa — making it likely that the county or the city would be on the hook for substantial costs if either proposal moves forward.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.on Twitter @kfixler.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to note that San Rafael, like Santa Rosa and Novato, also has two SMART stations.

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