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SMART backers mount repeal defense


In the face of a tax repeal effort, officials and supporters of the Sonoma-Marin commute train are mounting their own informational campaigns.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board has approved spending as much as $200,000 on public relations work that will include revamping the agency's website and developing outreach programs about how the 37-mile rail link between Santa Rosa and San Rafael is progressing.

"I think it is our charge to let the voters know what is happening," said SMART Chairwoman Valerie Brown. "Sometimes you get lost in tackling the internal business, which is where we have been the past three months. This will be a full-on outreach to meet with the people asking questions."

Friends of SMART, a rail support group that was active in the two-county campaign in 2008 to raise the sales tax by a quarter cent to fund SMART, says its voice has been missing in the recent debate.

The group in the past few weeks has become the umbrella organization for a coalition of 18 North Bay groups formed to advocate on SMART's behalf. Members include labor, environmental and business organizations that believe the $360 million SMART project creates jobs, offers an alternative to Highway 101 and is an economic stimulus.

The effort is meant to blunt the signature-gathering campaign by RepealSMART, a citizens group formed 10 months ago that wants to put a measure on next year's ballot to repeal the SMART sales tax.

"We are slow in reacting," said Jack Swearengen of Santa Rosa, who is president of Friends of SMART. <NO1><NO>"We had believed the project would proceed on its merits. We didn't realize the war was starting all over again and the project has to be fought and sold all over again. The RepealSMART people are trying to take us back to 2008 and before."

<NO1><NO>The sales tax passed with 70 percent support in the two counties after a contentious campaign that included lawsuits over ballot language and environmental impact reports.

Many of SMART's opponents remain from 2008 and have been been joined by newly disaffected residents who say SMART is not delivering what was promised.

The commute train was supposed run on a 70-mile line from Cloverdale to Larkspur, stopping at 14 stations, with service beginning in the fall of 2014. The rail line is now funded for half that length and may not start running trains until 2015 or 2016.

"When we look at the core group, we are openly split between those who supported SMART originally, and now don't, and those who never supported the idea," said Clay Mitchell of Windsor, co-chairman of RepealSMART.

Mitchell said his group welcomes more debate.

"We are obviously concerned if taxpayer dollars are spent on what some would consider propaganda," Mitchell said. "But I don't think that more people joining the discussion ever hurts, as long as they are honest and straightforward."

Since the tax passed in 2008, SMART has had a series of setbacks and missteps, many of which the agency blames on the economic downturn.

It has led to the decision to downsize the first rail segment, now running between downtown Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael, and could cause a delay in the start of service of one to two years. The project includes a pedestrian and bicycle path paralleling the train corridor.

SMART says it now has enough funding to complete the first phase of the train and remains committed to completing a Cloverdale-Larkspur line in the future. It is moving ahead with opening construction bids and is expected to award contracts and sell construction bonds within the next two months.

Chris Snyder of Operating Engineers Local 3 said SMART will create construction jobs for an industry that has been hard hit by the recession, with unemployment running 20 to 30 percent.

"We expect several hundred guys working the next three or four years," Snyder said. "We will put surveyors back to work, soil testers back to work, inspectors back to work, the guys who run bulldozers back to work."

Lisa Wittke Schaffner, chief executive officer of the Sonoma County Alliance, which represents dozens of North Bay businesses, said the SMART train is one more piece in the North Bay transportation system.

"We absolutely believe it is an economic stimulus," Wittke Schaffner said. "The Novato Narrows is a check mark in the negative column if a business is considering expanding or locating in Sonoma County. The airport expansion and SMART is a positive."

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said cost overruns are typical for public works projects and no reason to abandon SMART.

The cost of widening Highway 101 in the so-called Novato Narrows between Petaluma and Novato was $125 million in 2004, but has since risen to $850 million and is years behind schedule, Helfrich said.

"Is that a reason not to build the Novato Narrows? Just the cost overrun for a seven-mile carpool lane that will be congested the day it opens would build SMART and every bike path in Sonoma County," Helfrich said.