Still, Healdsburg City Council supports rail authority plan to stagger construction
By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg City Council members said Monday they are disappointed that passenger train service to town will be delayed, but they understand the financial reality behind the decision.
Instead of criticizing the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit district for scaling back construction of the 70-mile rail line, the council was supportive of its action.
“It’s unfortunate it’s not covering the whole way, but it’s moving forward,” said Councilman Tom Chambers, echoing the conclusion of his colleagues. “It may not be the best, but it’s important that something gets built.”
Mayor Jim Wood, who requested the topic be put on the agenda, kicked off the discussion Monday by saying he was surprised and “bothered” by SMART’s decision 10 days ago.
He said delaying train service to northern Sonoma County irked citizens in Windsor and Cloverdale, too.
“I voted for a project that would go from Cloverdale to Larkspur, not a project from Santa Rosa to the Marin Civic Center,” Wood said.
But facing a $350 million funding gap, SMART directors decided to operate an initial line between Railroad Square in Santa Rosa and the Marin Civic Center, delaying extensions to Cloverdale and Larkspur. Trains are still scheduled to start running in 2014.
The 40-mile line is 30 miles shorter than promised in 2008, when voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax hike to help pay for commuter trains and an accompanying bike path.
Prior to the meeting, Wood said “the decrease in sales tax isn’t something that happened overnight. Surely the people in charge knew this was happening. I’m surprised that it seems to have taken this long to come to some sort of solution.”
But during the council discussion, the tone was more understanding.
Councilman Gary Plass said when citizens voted for the train line, they couldn’t foresee the economy’s tremendous downturn.
“Although I’m upset it’s not going to cover the whole trail in the beginning, you have to understand what the (SMART) board is going through,” he said. “They don’t have the money.”
“I would not oppose the decision they made,” said Councilman Eric Ziedrich, adding, “I have to plug my nose when I say that.”
SMART directors said the struggling economy reduced revenues, shrunk bonding capacity and forced changes in the construction schedule. They are still committed to building the entire line but estimate that will take until 2016 or 2018.
Until full train service is available, SMART said, it plans to provide bus service from train stations to Larkspur and Cloverdale. The agency also said it will run some trains north to Cloverdale at slow speeds over a lower grade track.
Council members said Monday the stubborn economy may delay full train service even longer than anticipated.
They suggested SMART consider delaying construction of the bicycle and pedestrian path if that will help trains run all the way north.
The only member of the public who spoke Monday appeared to agree. “Cut it down to bare bones and get it going,” said Healdsburg resident Laura Bowman.
The council will draft a letter to SMART urging the agency also to resolve its conflicts with the North Coast Railroad Authority over use of the rail tracks so freight trains can begin running as soon as possible.