Opponents of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train apparently have failed in their attempt to force a repeal election on the sales tax that is the agency's major source of funding.

RepealSMART on Friday submitted petitions with 5,471 signatures to Sonoma County election officials and an undetermined number to Marin County. Repeal supporters have estimated that their total number of collected signatures will be about 15,000. That will almost certainly be inadequate after the voter-registration verification process.

Marin County's numbers will not be available until Monday.

"We thought we needed 19,000 to 20,000 to make the 15,000," said John Parnell of Novato, founder and co-chairman of RepealSMART. "Of course, the thing that disappoints me the most is people won't have an opportunity to vote on the tax."

The number of signatures RepealSMART says it needs, 14,902, is in dispute, however. SMART officials contend 39,000 are required. The sides cite different state laws to support their contentions.

Clay Mitchell of Windsor, co-chairman of RepealSMART, said his group is submitting the signatures as a symbolic gesture. He acknowledged the almost-certain failure.

"All of our volunteers and all the people who signed it, they signed it to make a statement," Mitchell said. "For us to decide not to register their statement, not to put it out there, is not for us to decide."

Parnell vowed not to give up, saying a new petition drive will begin next week with the goal of getting a repeal measure on the November ballot.

"All we have been saying from the beginning is that all we want is people to vote on it," Parnell said. "The only way we can get to the ballot is to start again."

SMART Chairwoman Valerie Brown said the failure is good news for SMART, which now can tap into construction funds being held in escrow pending the outcome of the repeal effort.

"By not qualifying, our funds will not be tied up, we will continue to move forward and do the work the people expect us to do," Brown said. "We were told that if the repeal did not qualify, the bond funds would be released."

The district on Dec. 21 sold $191 million in construction bonds, netting $171 million that SMART has set aside.

Signature gatherers were hoping to put a measure on the November ballot seeking to repeal Measure Q, the quarter-cent sales tax voters passed in November 2008.

Although it took a two-thirds majority to pass Measure Q, it would take just a simple majority to overturn it. SMART officials have said an election would cost the agency $800,000.

"Regardless of the ultimate outcome, our efforts will have improved the project," Mitchell said. "Scrutiny, asking the tough questions, demanding accountability .<TH>.<TH>. SMART knows they cannot slip anything by because they know we are on them."

Gloria Colter, Sonoma County's assistant registrar of voters, said the signatures will be counted and a report given to SMART's board. If the signature gatherers turn in more than the minimum threshold of 14,902 in both Sonoma and Marin counties, county workers will check the validity of the signatures.

Repeal advocates contend SMART is not delivering what was promised voters and will not take enough vehicles off the road to reduce congestion and emissions.

In the past three years, SMART has experienced a sharp drop in sales-tax revenue because of the weak economy, forcing it to scale back the service it plans to offer initially, although the long-term plan is to have a full 70-mile line from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

Despite the repeal effort, SMART has been moving forward to build a commute line in the two counties and begin service by late 2015 or early 2016.

SMART has begun work without relying on the bond revenue, primarily by relying on the sales tax that still is being levied and $45 million it has in cash.

On Jan. 9, SMART awarded a $103.3 million contract to Stacey and Witbeck Inc. of Alameda and Herzog Contracting Corp. of St. Joseph, Mo.

The contract covers building a rail line capable of trains running at speeds of 79 mph from Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa to the Marin County Civic Center. That includes two stations in Santa Rosa, stations in Rohnert Park, Cotati and Petaluma, two in Novato and one at the Marin County Civic Center.

A second contract is expected to be issued this spring to extend the line to downtown San Rafael.

Service is scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016, which is later than fall 2014 service as initially planned.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.