Critics of the Sonoma-Marin commuter rail line held a town hall meeting Sunday to energize volunteers and expand their campaign to repeal a quarter-cent sales tax funding the $380 million project.
Clay Mitchell, co-chairman of RepealSMART, estimated the group has gathered "thousands" of signatures since Oct. 1, when it began to circulate petitions to put a measure on the 2012 ballot asking voters to end the tax.
However, Mitchell could not provide specific figures on signatures gathered so far. Organizers asked volunteers to submit their first batch of petitions by Dec. 1, when RepealSMART will conduct an internal count and determine its next step.
It's still unclear whether the group must gather 15,000 or 30,000 signatures by the Jan. 28 deadline to get the initiative on the ballot.
Mitchell gave a lengthy presentation under a disco ball and lights at a Santa Rosa dance hall, calling the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project "one of the biggest boondoggles in North Bay history."
He asked everyone to bring the petitions to their golf buddies, knitting clubs and neighborhoods and ask them to help get the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project back before voters.
The initiative seeks to repeal Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax passed in November 2008 by a combined 70 percent of voters in Sonoma and Marin counties.
About 30 people attended the town hall meeting, bursting into laughter when Mitchell outlined the costs of the project and the six-figure salary of SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.
"I'm sick of projects that cost far more than promised," said Ellie Jones, 59, of Windsor. "They should have looked at a worst-case scenario."
Jones echoed a view shared by many in the group at Ellington Hall on Industrial Drive in Santa Rosa who said the train's growing cost has led her to mistrust the project leadership.
SMART officials have faced funding obstacles and downsized the project from 70 to 37 miles. The project was originally planned to open service in 2014 between Larkspur and Cloverdale, but it is now planned to start service at the earliest in 2016 from San Rafael to Santa Rosa.
Mitchell said the repeal effort was gaining steam. RepealSMART just opened an office in Cotati, donated by J&M Manufacturing, and was printing more signature booklets.
Sally Hopkins, 74, of Santa Rosa is among three people who staff the RepealSMART office at 430 Aaron St. off Redwood Drive.
Hopkins said she would support a train system that connected key transportation hubs in the Bay Area "but I don't want to go to downtown San Rafael, I have no business there," said Hopkins, who retired from Sonoma State University.
Sunday's meeting was the first step toward getting involved for many in the group, including Dennis and Norma Viglienzone of Santa Rosa.
Dennis Viglienzone suggested at one point that they focus the funds on boosting the bus system.
The bike trails and reduced emissions promised as added benefits of the rail project are "nice and warm and fuzzy and I support all of that, but we're not a densely populated area, it's a waste of money," said Viglienzone, a retired teacher and veteran.
SMART supporters have begun to address growing opposition.
The board has committed to spending $200,000 on public relations work to educate people about the costs and benefits of the rail system.