North Bay rail advocates rallied Thursday in a show of support for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, defending the commuter train project as a benefit for both the economy and the environment.
About 300 people assembled at Santa Rosa's Railroad Square for the hour-long rally, which was staged by the SMART Riders Coalition, a group of labor, business and environmental organizations.
"This is one of the best investments that Sonoma and Marin county has made. We are creating economic prosperity," said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is also a SMART board member.
The gathering came four days after a town hall meeting by RepealSMART, a group collecting signatures to place a measure on the ballot next June or November that would repeal the SMART sales tax.
SMART has a $360 million plan to build the first stage of a commuter rail line from Railroad Square to downtown San Rafael. As additional funds become available, the line would be extended north to Cloverdale and south to Larkspur.
The board approved the sale of $191 million in construction bonds on Wednesday and will consider awarding a contract for construction in mid December.
Critics note that the initial rail line is smaller than the one promised to voters during the 2008 sales tax election and is one or more years behind schedule. As a result, RepealSMART organizers contend the public should have an opportunity to vote on the project again.
State Sen. Noreen Evans, however, said the voters have already spoken in favor of SMART.
"This is happening statewide," the Santa Rosa Democrat said. "There is an anti-rail movement, an anti-community movement, an anti-jobs movement, and we need them all and we need them now."
The rally was meant to demonstrate that support.
"Where else are you going to find a group as diverse as this? The common connection is that SMART is good for the future. It will relieve dependence on petroleum, it will create jobs, it will promote tourism," Jack Swearengen, chairman of Friends of SMART, told the crowd.
Jon Dick of Santa Rosa, a heavy equipment operator who was recently laid off by Syar Industries, said while he wouldn't be working on the rail line, the work on SMART could affect him indirectly.
"Working in mining is dependent on development," Dick said. "The last two years things have been slow."
Rich Nosker, a Santa Rosa public works engineer, said he supports SMART even though he knows it has its problems.
"I'm a bike rider, I walk, I drive a car and I'd love to take the train," Nosker said.
More than a dozen organizations are part of the SMART Riders Coalition, which include the North Bay Central Labor Council, Operating Engineers Local 3, the Sonoma Alliance, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, Friends of SMART, the Living Wage Coalition and the Accountable Development Coalition.