SMART passengers offer opinions of rail service as key ballot tax measure looms
Seats were at a premium aboard the SMART train over the holiday weekend, with the commuter rail agency offering free rides Thanksgiving through Sunday - a way to familiarize more people with the service ahead of a key vote next spring that will determine its future in the North Bay.
The day after the holiday, Hilary Lyon, 42, of Eureka and her parents decided to make an afternoon of the complimentary trip south for lunch in Petaluma to introduce her young daughter to the train. After boarding at the north Santa Rosa station, Sienna, 5, flapped her woven pink mittens with excitement as she stared out the window of the fast-moving rail car before bounding across the aisle to pose for a photo with her grandparents to commemorate her first ride.
Lyon grew up in Santa Rosa before she and her husband moved to Mountain View, and then north to Humboldt County for his job with the U.S. Coast Guard. But she used to commute to Novato each day for work and sees the value to Sonoma-?Marin Area Rail Transit’s service to get back and forth between the two counties to avoid the worsening traffic congestion on Highway 101.
“Traffic is horrendous. The more they widen it, the more it seems to bog down in different places,” said Lyon, who was also taking her first ride on SMART with her delighted daughter. “But this is great, it’s clean. You get to relax and it’s not bumper to bumper.”
A little more than two years since beginning operations, SMART is banking on just such an experience among riders - seasoned and newcomers alike - to again support the rail agency in its bid for a sales-tax extension in March. The measure, which the agency’s board approved last month for the upcoming primary election, would extend the current tax another 30 years through 2059 and save SMART an estimated $12 million per year toward ongoing operations.
In the ballot language, SMART lists expected annual revenues from the tax at $40 million, though its own projections show returns surpassing $50 million in fiscal year 2029-2030, when it would take effect, and an average of more than $80 million per year over the life of the renewal. If it does not pass, however, agency staff has warned of significant cuts to its workforce of about ?200 and its nascent service within the next three years.
SMART’s operating expenses are $58 million in the current fiscal year, and are forecast to reach about $63 million in 2022-2023. The agency would plan to tap its $17 million reserve going forward, if voters reject the ballot measure in March. But Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer, has said limited rainy-day funds would leave the rail agency in a precarious situation without early extension of the sales tax. The agency generates about $4 million a year in fare revenue, and has had almost 1.6 million passengers since August 2017 when service started.
Nearly 70% of voters in Sonoma and Marin counties backed the train in 2008 when they approved the quarter-cent tax for 20 years to launch passenger rail service. To stabilize its longer-term prospects, the agency now seeks renewal about a decade early to refinance its bond debt connected to building the initial 43-mile line from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts.
Beyond overcoming a long-?vocal group of opponents, who largely point to financial missteps and SMART having failed so far to build its planned 70-mile rail line from Larkspur to Cloverdale, the rail agency also has the difficult task of reaching the two-thirds majority vote required in California on tax measures for a specific purpose. Officials with SMART acknowledge the challenge, particularly in convincing those who don’t ride the train and on a tight timeline with mail-in ballots beginning to reach voters in early February.
“Two-thirds is tough no matter what, so there’s always that hill to climb,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who serves as SMART board chairman. “It’s essential to continue service as we know it. So fingers crossed, and I’m hopeful and pretty optimistic at this point based on the feedback I’ve had.”
Questions about public safety also are an issue that officials with SMART have had to contend with. Late last month, federal rail officials said they launched reviews of two SMART train crossings in Sonoma County after deaths at each location earlier this year, including the Rohnert Park intersection where five people were struck and killed in collisions with the passenger train in a 13-month period, the most recent death coming in September.
As part of a nationwide probe, the Federal Railroad Administration initiated an audit last month of all safety equipment at the ground-level crossing over Golf Course Drive in Rohnert Park near Commerce Boulevard after being alerted to the death of a 30-year-old woman at the intersection in June. The agency that oversees the country’s railroads also contacted Santa Rosa over plans to inspect its crossing at San Miguel Avenue, where a 66-?year-old man died in July in an incident that police ruled a suicide.