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Novato Says No to Additional Passenger Train Funding

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Novato City Council urges Transportation Authority of Marin not to contribute $8 million to the costs of the struggling SMART system.

Novato Patch 6-15-11 By Brent Ainsworth


The Novato City Council’s message to those attempting to get a North Bay passenger rail project started: You haven’t earned our trust yet.

The council voted 3-2 to recommend that Councilwoman Carole Dillon-Knutson come out against the Transportation Authority of Marin’s tentative plan to put $8 million toward start-up costs for the initial segment of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit service.

Dillon-Knutson, who is on the TAM board, said she would respect the nay votes of Pat Eklund, Jeanne MacLeamy and Denise Athas at the next TAM board meeting June 23. She and Mayor Madeline Kellner were in favor of giving SMART a push out of the gate.

Novato has been the target of two significant cutbacks from the original SMART plans that voters approved in 2008. Funding has been deferred to the Atherton station, sometimes called the North Novato station at the junction of Atherton Avenue and North Redwood Boulevard next to 101. Also, the replacement of a bridge over Novato Creek not far from Novato Community Hospital has been deferred.

Staff from TAM, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission came up with a formula to figure out how each agency could contribute to start-up costs. Using a complicated formula that factored in sales tax contributions, the costs of start-up construction and projected ridership, each agency was recommended with a contribution to the cause by its staff members. For TAM, the figure came out to $8 million. The figure was $3 million for Sonoma County Transportation Authority and $10 million for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

TAM Executive Director Diane Steinhauser spoke before the Novato council Tuesday night at Novato City Hall and said there is a $109.1 million shortfall in the funding to get the first segment between downtown Santa Rosa and the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael. The total cost estimate for that segment is $418.6 million, and $88.2 million of that is targeted for project deferments until more funding can be secured.

Dillon-Knutson urged her cohorts to vote in favor of the $8 million in TAM funds, saying she believed it was the council’s job to facilitate the creation of the hotly debated train system that was approved by 63 percent of Novato voters in 2008. Kellner said she had great concerns about SMART’s fiscal responsibility up until January but believes major positive changes have put the authority on the right track.

But Eklund called the idea of an $8 million financial boost “a real violation of the public trust” and reminded that Marin voters made it clear three years ago that they did not want money earmarked for roads, pedestrian trails and bike trails to be used for rail service. She also described the $8 million figure as “ludicrous” when compared to the $3 million coming from Sonoma County because she believes most of the train riders will be from Sonoma County.

Athas agreed with Eklund, saying, “I don’t think the public would vote for this if another vote were held today.”

MacLeamy expressed her disappointment in SMART’s financial management and doubted whether there is enough money available now to start the segments of the project that are already approved. She compared TAM’s formula on coming up with the $8 million figure to the state’s gyrations for balancing its budget.

“I would like to see SMART be smart about their finances and make do with what they’ve got,” MacLeamy said. “When they show they can be responsible, then they can come back” and inquire about additional funding.

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