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SMART advances sales tax extension vote for March 2020 ballot

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Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties will be asked to decide whether the region’s commuter rail line should be funded for an additional 30 years after SMART on Wednesday formalized its plan to place a quarter-cent sales tax extension on the March ballot.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board spent an hour and a half discussing and fine- tuning the ballot measure before voting unanimously to seek voters’ permission to renew the sales tax. The 12-member board is scheduled to finalize the proposal at its Nov. 6 meeting.

The decision Wednesday nearly brings to a close months of appeals from the agency’s top staff to renew the tax about a decade before it is set to expire. The strategy, which includes an updated spending plan, was designed to head off looming financial hurdles from rising debts that SMART’s leaders say would otherwise force deep cuts as soon as next year to train service and the agency’s 200-person workforce.

SMART estimates the sales tax would generate no less than $40 million per year. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, SMART collected $41.2 million in tax revenues, according to SMART financial chief Erin McGrath, and when the current sales tax sunsets in 2029, agency projections point to it increasing to $50 million.

Even with passage of the measure, SMART has acknowledged it still won’t have the $364 million it needs to extend service north to Healdsburg or Cloverdale after it is scheduled to get to Windsor by the end of 2021. The rail line currently operates along 43 miles of track, from San Rafael to north of Santa Rosa near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, and will add 2 miles more when service begins to Larkspur by the end of the year.

The renewal also won’t provide the estimated $135 million needed to build the remainder of a paved multiuse pathway designed to parallel the planned 70-mile line also promised in the original sales tax measure from 2008. To date, the bicycle and pedestrian path stands at less than one-third finished.

Still, board members said Wednesday the agency’s past record of garnering outside grant funding would help SMART keep its commitments going forward. The agency has moved beyond past missteps, they said, and the system will still be completed as conceived in the first sales tax measure.

“In looking at the 2020 measure, this one is much more clear and much more transparent, based on experiences that we’ve had in the meantime,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, who is one of the SMART board’s longest- serving members. “I’m very pleased to see the projects that are not completed listed out so that people can see exactly what our priorities are.”

During the meeting, board members wrestled with the final language of the spending plan required to pursue the tax measure. To win over voters in Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale, Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, added a last-minute $1 million fund for discount programs for those north county residents until each city receives service. For members of the local bicycle coalitions, who sent a flurry of emails and letters to the board the past few days reiterating their frustration over the slow pace of work on the pathway, he recommitted to prioritize finishing unbuilt sections concurrently with future rail extensions.

All of that is contingent on the sales tax extension passing, which will require approval from a two-thirds majority of voters in the two counties. Even in periods with strong economies and low unemployment, many view the threshold to pass as a significant challenge and far from a guarantee.

SMART achieved 65% support across residents of the two counties in 2006, narrowly failing to reach the necessary percentage for passage on its first try. Two years later, nearly 70% of voters backed Measure Q, granting the rail agency a quarter-cent sales tax that is its main source of funding.

A little over two years since the launch of train service, a recent poll funded by the North Bay Leadership Council showed 69% of the 500 voters surveyed in the two counties said they would support the extension that would approve the tax through 2059. That leaves little margin for error as SMART and its biggest backers now move to mount a vigorous campaign before vote-by-mail ballots go out in early February.

Just 4% of Sonoma County residents frequently take the train or ride a bus as their primary means of transportation, according to a separate poll funded by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority last month. Another 13% of the 600 voters who were surveyed said they occasionally take either public transit option, compared to 81% who said they frequently travel alone by car.

A combined 69% of county residents said they predominately commute by themselves in a car, or occasionally take public transit or ride a bicycle or walk. Only 6% of people polled identified as “eco travelers,” or those who would count themselves among those who frequently hop the train or a bus to get around.

The statistics are ammunition for those who oppose providing SMART with another 30 years of tax revenue, or at least with a decade still remaining on Measure Q. Opposition to the tax renewal is developing around SMART having missed the mark in delivering on its original pledges. That includes the agency failing to build the 70-mile system from Larkspur to Cloverdale and the adjacent pathway project, as well as missing passenger projections, and reductions in traffic congestion greenhouse gas emissions.

“SMART has not provided the information that voters need to make an informed decision,” Santa Rosa resident Rich Harkness told the board during the public comment period. “What we do know about SMART’s performance so far is not good. Until SMART can demonstrate better results, you should not ask voters to sign a huge blank check for them.”

Mansourian noted that in SMART’s two-plus years of operations, the system has now carried more than 1.5 million passengers, including almost 150,000  bicyclists. The rail agency has been unwilling or unable to offer data on daily ridership, as well as emissions or traffic reduction numbers.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also is a SMART board member, applauded agency staff in their efforts to maintain a focus on finishing what they initially set out to do while also praising the work so far.

“Looking at what we’ve done in eight years’ time is a phenomenal accomplishment,” said Rabbitt. “It’s not easy, and the dollars are few and far between. Haters will hate, and they’re always out there. But we’re winning over converts right and left, and I know that because I hear from them often.”

The discussion Wednesday lacked more than a mention of the most recent fatality along the rail line — a 41-year-old woman who died when she stepped in front of the train on Sept. 26. The death marked the 10th total since SMART started service in August 2017 and fifth at or near the same busy ground-level crossing in Rohnert Park. The City Council for the county’s third-largest city committed to submitting a letter to SMART’s board to consider slowing the train through the intersection while a safety review is completed by an outside consultant.

Absent from the meeting Wednesday were San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who serves as SMART board chairman, and Barbara Pahre, the vice chairwoman who serves via the Golden Gate Bridge District. In their place, Novato Mayor Eric Lucan led the group to their 10-0 vote to move the item forward before next month when the agency will look to formalize the ballot measure.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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