Facts behind the rhetoric on Measure R's quarter-cent sales tax for commuter rail line

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Decades of debate have come down to this: Does passenger rail have a place in the 21st century North Bay?

The debate has ebbed and flowed as various proposals to reintroduce train service in Sonoma and Marin counties have been launched.

The latest - Measure R - is a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for rail service through the two counties and is arguably the most detailed plan to date.

True to historic form, the debate has been wide-ranging and intense.

And only the most basic elements are undisputed.

Both sides agree trains would run on

70 miles of track, traveling south from Cloverdale into Marin County and back, and would not run on weekends.

But fundamental aspects of the plan have ignited debates that have played out in editorial pages, campaign forums and public meetings.

Both sides claim ownership of the facts, but for voters awash in campaign rhetoric from a tax-heavy ballot, finding the facts on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit proposal has been tough going. Here are some of the basics:

Q: What is Measure R?

A: A quarter-cent sales tax that appears on the Nov. 7 ballot in Sonoma and Marin counties.

After rejection of five rail measures in Marin and Sonoma counties since 1990, it marks the first time voters in both counties have voted as a single district on funding for rail in the North Bay.

Q: How much would the rail system cost?

A: According to SMART, construction would cost $433 million, including $46 million for SMART's share of a parallel bike path. Operating costs are estimated at $14.2 million annually for rail, $1.3 million for shuttle bus service and $750,000 for the bike path.

Factoring in 20 years of operation, inflation and the cost of borrowing against future tax revenue, SMART officials put the total cost at $1.4 billion.

Q: Where would it run?

A: SMART would run 28 trains a day on 70 miles of track between Cloverdale to Larkspur, stopping at 14 stations. The project also includes a continuous, parallel bike and pedestrian path.

Q: Would the trains run at night or on weekends?

A: No. One midday train is proposed - the rest of the service would occur during peak morning and afternoon/evening commute hours.

Q: What would it cost?

A: Average one-way fare would be $4, but fares would reflect the distance traveled. SMART has not yet developed a specific rate structure.

Q: How many people would ride it?

A: SMART's environmental impact report said it would average 5,300 one-way trips daily if service starts in 2010.

Assuming most riders would be round-trip travelers, about 2,650 people would use the train daily.

One-way trips are expected to fall to 5,050 by 2025, assuming Highway 101 is widened to three lanes in each direction between Petaluma and Novato.

By comparison, Highway 101 at Steele Lane in Santa Rosa handles about 114,000 vehicles a day, according to Caltrans. At the south end of the line in Larkspur, Highway 101 at Sir Francis Drake Boulevard handles about 170,000.

Q: How would train service affect congestion on Highway 101?

A: According to the EIR, "much of the traffic congestion relief would be found on surface streets paralleling Highway 101, rather than on the freeway itself."

However, the duration of congestion during peak commute hours would probably be reduced with the start of rail service, according to the EIR, because fewer vehicles would be on the roads.

Q: How would it affect traffic around stations?

A: Twenty-six of the 38 intersections analyzed in the EIR would have nearly the same traffic flow with or without SMART.

The other 12 are not expected to meet their individual cities' traffic flow standards regardless of SMART, and the EIR could not determine how much adding train service would increase traffic.

Congestion would increase in downtown San Rafael, Railroad Square in Santa Rosa and downtown Petaluma but could be reduced by timing traffic signals with train schedules, according to the EIR.

Q: The city of Larkspur opposes it. Can it still stop there?

A: Yes. SMART owns the right of way into Larkspur. As is the case with any stop along the line, a depot or platform would have to conform to the local jurisdiction's planning and zoning regulations.

Q: How many train travelers would use the ferry?

A: According to the EIR, approximately 180 daily passengers are projected to get off the train in Larkspur, and between 40 and 55 of those would transfer to one of five morning ferries.

Q: How do SMART and express bus service compare?

A: The draft environmental study found daily ridership on express bus service would be 2,380 if that service were provided instead of rail service. But in the final report, SMART said express bus ridership would be 4,688 a day.

Agency officials now say that was based on unrealistic projections, and contend the number was recalculated to appease rail opponents who argue bus service is a more economically viable option than rail.

SMART opponents say express bus service provides just as many passenger trips without spending hundreds of millions of dollars to start up a train service.

Q: How would SMART affect air pollution?

A: Factoring in both car trips eliminated and emissions from diesel train cars, train service would eliminate 124,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per day, according to SMART's environmental report.

By comparison, more than 24.6 million pounds of greenhouse gases are produced in Sonoma County every day, about 10.6 million of which is caused by transportation - cars, buses, trucks and others, according to Sonoma County Climate Protection.

Q: Why not extend BART?

A: SMART officials say extending BART, an electric rail system, would cost 10 times what SMART proposes to spend for a diesel vehicle.

In addition, connecting to BART on the east side of the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge or tunneling through the Marin Headlands to add a rail connection to the Golden Gate Bridge would probably be environmentally unfeasible, SMART officials contend. And any modification to the Golden Gate Bridge is tightly regulated because of its historic status.

Q: If voters reject Measure R, what happens to freight service?

A: Freight can run regardless of the vote on Measure R because there is a freight easement that extends over SMART's right-of-way. Under the agreement, the freight operator has the right to operate, but must work around SMART.

SMART's final EIR estimates no more than six freight trains a week, all running at "off-peak hours," meaning when the passenger train doesn't run.

A complete analysis of the impacts of freight service was not required for SMART's EIR and was not performed.

Q: Is paving over the tracks for bus service an option?

A: No. Because of the freight easement, the freight provider must have the ability to use the tracks regardless of how voters deal with passenger rail.

Q: What happens if voters pass Measure R?

A: If passed by a two-thirds majority of the combined voters in Sonoma and Marin counties, a quarter-cent sales tax would go into effect April 1 and last 20 years. SMART officials say trains would be running by 2010.

Q: What will it cost voters personally?

A: A quarter-cent sales tax hike would mean every person in Sonoma County would pay an average of $36 per year, and in Marin County, $46 per year. But those numbers could vary widely, depending on spending patterns and inflation.

Q: What would happen if the tax can't buy what is promised?

A: The SMART board could ask for additional funds or scale back proposed services.

Q: What happens if voters reject Measure R?

A: If Measure R loses, SMART, an agency created by the Legislature in 2003, will not automatically disband.

The agency has a 12-member board composed primarily of local elected officials. It controls 70 miles of track and millions of dollars of public property, so regardless of the outcome of the vote, the board still would have to manage the rail system.

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