The SMART way to fund the downtown station

By: Pat Eklund
Originally published in the Marin Independent Journal

Last week, I was asked, “Why don’t you support the downtown Novato SMART station?”

My response was that I do and always have.

But, the issue before the Novato City Council was who pays for it.

Over the past month, many social media posts, petitions, signs, letters in newspapers, news articles and editorials have advocated for completing the Novato downtown SMART station without addressing the critical funding challenges.

I, too, want the downtown station completed, but in a way that protects our taxpayers and the vital city services they deserve.

Let’s put this in context.

The Novato City Council decided on the SMART stations in 2009. At that time, we were told to pick two stations.

Since SMART is a commuter rail system, we chose our largest employment center — San Marin, which would serve the Fireman’s Fund complex, where almost 3,000 employees worked; and Hamilton, serving residents and employees in the hangars.

We also asked that “the downtown station be designated as a priority site when and if SMART considered additional stations.”

Six years later, Fireman’s Fund announced its move to Petaluma. In 2018, these buildings originally built for Fireman’s Fund in 1982, will be available for lease once again. And, one of the many attractions for the 770,000-square-foot office complex is the SMART station across the street.

In January 2016, the council majority voted 3-1, with one abstention, against staff recommendation, to borrow $2.4 million from our Hamilton Trust to construct the first phase of the downtown station.

The estimated cost to build the downtown station totaled $5.5 million, which does not include renovating our historic depot.

I voted no, because I believed then and still do, that SMART should pay for the construction of their station like it has done for most of the cities from the Santa Rosa Airport to the Larkspur Ferry.

The Novato General Fund is now paying $156,000 per year for 20 years to repay the loan from the trust.

The decision to fund half of the downtown station was made without a plan to fund the remaining $3.1 million needed to complete the station, despite being told by SMART that the train would only stop at two stations in Novato.

Some have claimed service would alternate between the San Marin and downtown stations, but SMART has not made a commitment since it depends on ridership.

Due to financial shortfalls caused by the Great Recession, Novato over a four-year period eliminated 50 positions, leaving us with 182 employees in 2011. Everyone felt the impacts of those staff and service reductions and that is why we asked our community to help by passing Measure F during the crisis and then later Measure C to help with additional staffing and services, but not restoring all cuts.

Today, we have a concrete platform downtown that needs to be finished. Fortunately, in 2016 staff applied for and we received a federal grant for $1.4 million, which now leaves us with a $1.3 million funding gap.

Rather than take funds from other projects, I advocated to pursue grant opportunities since we have months before the second phase would be constructed as SMART begins the Larkspur extension.

This approach deserves a shot and I am glad that my colleagues agreed.

To date, the city of Novato has invested $3.09 million in the downtown station — $2.4 million for Phase 1, $190,000 for the federal local match, and $500,000 for parking lot improvements, including lighting and landscaping.

This week, we will be meeting with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to explore grant options which may take us to the state.

Nevertheless, we are committed to finishing the downtown station.

However, we can’t stop there. We need to complete revitalizing the area by making the restoration of the historic depot and our city-owned historic buildings downtown a priority. That would bring the past to life and enhance our small-town charm in our downtown with a sense of place.