SMART officials discuss bid to seek sales tax renewal as soon as March 2020

Top officials at the North Bay’s commuter rail agency said this week they expect a citizen-led campaign will be formed in the next month to push for early renewal of SMART’s sales-tax funding as soon as the March election.

SMART is targeting the state’s primary based on expectations of greater turnout from progressive voters who may back the quarter-cent measure as they choose from a growing list of Democrats running for president. The rail agency also hopes to avoid competing with Sonoma County’s transportation authority, which appears poised to seek early renewal of its own quarter-cent sales tax for road and highway upgrades during the general election in November 2020.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board won’t make a decision whether to seek early extension of the 20-year tax until this fall. The move would represent the single largest test of public support for the 21-month-old rail service since passage of its current sales tax, Measure Q, in 2008. It received 70% of the vote after a similar ballot measure narrowly failed in 2006.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, signaled that the agency and its allies will seek to tout successes since the first passenger trains starting running in August 2017. To date, the SMART has carried more than 1.2 million riders.

“We’re no longer selling an idea,” Mansourian said Wednesday during a meeting with The Press Democrat’s editorial board. “We’re asking to keep what you have. We’re still in our infancy, and committed to getting better. We’ll commit to work hard and continue to make the vision a reality.”

The rail agency and its supporters will be tasked with reselling voters on a transit project that remains unfinished more than a decade after it was first authorized, with development costs that have soared significantly beyond initial projections. They stand at $448 million for the current 43-mile line; original estimates pegged buildout of the entire 70-mile system at $450 million.

“A lot of the uncertainty that existed before isn’t there now,” said Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer. “We know what the pitfalls are. We know what it takes to get to Cloverdale. We’re not starting from scratch.”

Mansourian would not share this week tentative dates for extending service north to the cities of Healdsburg and Cloverdale or say when the agency planned to add a second station in Petaluma, which accounts for the greatest share of SMART riders in Sonoma County. Those projects, which together are estimated to cost $375 million, plus the rail agency’s rising operational spending - on debt, labor and fuel - loom among its largest hurdles in fulfilling the original Larkspur-to-Cloverdale line promised to voters.

A multi-use pathway planned to parallel the railway also stands only partially built. Original projections put the project’s cost at $91 million, but so far $57 million has been spent to complete about 18 miles of the bicycle and pedestrian trail.

Meanwhile, the $55 million Larkspur station is scheduled to be finished by year’s end, as is a new downtown Novato station paid for by the city, Mansourian said. Extension of service to Windsor is slated for late 2021, at a price of $55 million, bringing total capital costs to more than $569 million. Ultimately, SMART officials said, the entire planned project is expected to cost more than $944 million - about twice the original estimate.

“We’re a major player now,” Mansourian said. “We have a track record, and have delivered a mega-project in the North Bay in so few years.”

The job of the campaign committee, he said, would be to champion the agency’s ability to secure more than $300 million in outside grant funding to construct the line and its stations. That money has been crucial because sales tax revenue, at ?$289 million as of spring 2018, has come in sharply below initial projections made before 2008, when the recession dealt SMART a major and long-lasting financial setback. Measure Q, if allowed to run its ?20-year course, would come nowhere close to the original $890 million projection made by SMART officials more than a decade ago, Mansourian said.

Mansourian declined to identify who would oversee the campaign committee. He said he’s had no discussions with those who might lead the effort.

Longtime Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who served 15 years on the SMART board, said he is aware his name has been floated as a possible co-chairman for the campaign effort. Former Marin County Supervisor Cynthia Murray, who now lives in Petaluma and led the Measure Q campaign in 2008, also is seen as another top choice, said Steve Birdlebough, co-founder of citizen advocacy group Friends of SMART.

“It’s natural to think about Jake, because he was there on the board from the beginning, he knows the history and he knows rail issues very well,” said Birdlebough. “I know that there have been some conversations among the people who have done this, but we’ve not seen anybody stepping forward to be the leader and I think everybody is sort of deferring to who would work very well with Farhad, and have his strong confidence.”

The building of a community coalition remains in the early stages, with interest shown as well by contractors and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Birdlebough said.

Any campaign that begins later this year will face a tight window in which to make its case to voters. The SMART board’s decision could come as late as November, and if the go-ahead is given for the March primary, that will leave only about three months of campaign time - during the holiday season - before most voters get their mail-in ballots.

Mansourian and McGrath stressed that they were focused on managing public expectations about the rail line’s development under shifting economic conditions and building on key lessons that emerged from Measure Q, especially the need to more accurately predict future tax revenue. That approach - one Mansourian, a North Bay public works veteran, called a “steep hill” - will be central to convincing both riders and nonriders to again give SMART a two-thirds majority at the ballot box.

Early renewal of the sales tax would allow the agency to refinance its debt, lowering annual costs that are at $17 million and rising, McGrath said. Measure Q currently brings in about $39 million a year.

The funding extension to 2049 would also help the agency attract more outside grant dollars to speed its extension from Windsor 5 miles north to Healdsburg and then 17 miles more to Cloverdale, Mansourian said.

The focus for now is getting the spending plan to SMART’s board with a couple of months to mull the ballot measure decision, said McGrath. The filing deadline to qualify for the March election is Dec. 6, and options remain on the table for seeking renewal in November 2020, or in the primary or general elections in 2024 or 2028 before Measure Q expires in 2029.

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