SMART selects Gary Phillips to chair board of directors, eyes expansion in 2019

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Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Wednesday selected San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips to chair its board of directors, a nod to the emphasis the commuter rail agency will place this year on finishing a key expansion that will extend service to Larkspur.

Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, the outgoing chairman of the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Committee and a 15-year member of the SMART board, was elected vice-chairman.

Phillips, 73, who has served on the SMART board for seven years, said his top priority for 2019 is overseeing the connection to Larkspur through his neighboring city. The extension, which is scheduled to be completed by year’s end, includes changes to existing roadway crossings and transitioning the line from a single to a double track to the future southern terminus.

He also hopes to help the Golden Gate Bridge District redevelop San Rafael’s transit center, near where SMART passengers presently end their train trip and transfer to local buses, Greyhounds and airport shuttles.

“We have an awful lot taking place in San Rafael,” said Phillips. “It’s going to be critical over this next year that that all come together well.”

Mackenzie, 79, said SMART needs to maintain the success it has achieved during its first 16 months of operations. The rail agency expects, for example, to serve its 1 millionth rider sometime this week, and its goal in the coming months is to increase ridership by addressing gaps in service, improving commuter transfers and working with the Golden Gate Bridge District to smooth out ferry connections from Larkspur to San Francisco. It is also building a new downtown station in Novato, set to be completed by the end of the year.

Once that and the $55.4 million extension to Larkspur are finished, SMART can turn its expansion efforts north to complete the planned 70-mile line, extending service to Windsor, Healdsburg and finally Cloverdale. That poses its own set of obstacles, however.

A lawsuit surrounding the voter-approved toll hikes across Bay Area bridges could hold up $40 million in toll revenues designated for the $55 million extension to Windsor and an additional $30 million allocated to rebuild the San Rafael transit center.

Both projects could be delayed, depending on when and how the legal matter is resolved.

“The tolls are being collected,” said Mackenzie, who also expects the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to reappoint him to another four-year term on the MTC board. “We believe that we will prevail in the litigation. If that doesn’t happen, then that’s a different matter.”

Wednesday’s SMART meeting — the board’s first of the new year — also functioned as the final one for longtime board member Jim Eddie, a Golden Gate Bridge District appointee. In departing, he joins former Cloverdale Councilwoman Carol Russell in vacating seats that will need to be filled to return to 12 members.

In fact, Mackenzie’s SMART board term is also up, and clinching his new vice-chairman position will require reappointment through his role on the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. He will compete with four other candidates for two openings, including Cloverdale Councilwoman Melanie Bagby, Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller and Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, with a decision coming Jan. 31.

SMART’s chair and vice-chair positions traditionally rotate between Sonoma and Marin County tenures. The leadership positions usually serve two-year terms, though Phillips indicated he will re-evaluate at the end of 2019 and may only serve for one year.

He replaces Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, who shared a fist bump with outgoing vice-chairwoman Judy Arnold, a Marin County supervisor, to commemorate two years in their respective leadership positions. Both have two years remaining on their four-year board appointments.

The SMART board’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Feb. 6.

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

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