SMART approves sales-tax extension measure for March 2020 ballot
Voters in Sonoma and Marin counties will decide in March whether SMART is worthy of 30 more years of sales-tax revenues after the rail agency on Wednesday finalized a funding renewal measure for the 2020 primary ballot.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board spent just minutes formalizing what its members recognize is a turning point in the commuter rail system’s decadelong existence. It was done with little fanfare as the 12-member board saw the step as procedural after it supported the same choice last month with a unanimous vote following a half-year of deliberations.
Given the March vote’s implications for the agency’s long-term financial health, it will essentially serve as a referendum on how SMART has performed and delivered on its promises since train service began in August 2017. If residents in the two counties offer their support as they did in 2008, it will extend the agency’s quarter-cent sales tax for a 30-year period to guarantee SMART’s primary funding stream into 2059. If they fail to provide the two-thirds majority the measure needs to pass, it could jeopardize future expansion and lead to cuts in service, the agency’s leaders warn.
“For me, it’s a fairly easy decision,” said Gary Phillips, SMART’s board chairman. “The consequence is pretty significant, because if it does pass — and hopefully that’s the case — it opens up a lot of possibilities, such as continuing operations as we know it and expanding some. Without that, it’s hard to imagine operations as they might be, because they would change significantly from the lack of additional cash-flow that this would provide.”
Since April, top staff with SMART have cautioned that rising costs will overtake revenues as soon as a year from now. The agency would be forced to burn through the $17 million it has in its rainy-day funds in a matter of a few years if it can’t find a way to restructure growing debt tied to initial buildout of the system by spreading payments out over additional years.
Without early renewal of the sales tax, which SMART conservatively estimates will initially generate $40 million per year, chief financial officer Erin McGrath has stated over the course of several months that the agency would have to consider slashing $9 million from its annual operating budget that is projected to top $60 million by 2021. The result would be deep cuts to daily service, which SMART plans to expand by the end of the year, as well as layoffs for a number of its roughly 200-employee workforce.
Opponents of extending SMART’s sales tax contend the agency has fallen short of its pitch to the voters who authorized 2008’s Measure Q and hasn’t done enough to earn what some have billed as a blank check well into the middle of the century.
They point to the current 43-mile line from north Santa Rosa to San Rafael when the original tax measure promised 70 miles of service, from Larkspur to Cloverdale, with trains every 30 minutes compared to gaps of 90 minutes or more. They reference the multiuse pathway for bikes and pedestrians that was supposed to run parallel beside the full system that is only about one-third complete and in noncontiguous segments. They openly question whether SMART has improved congestion along the still-jammed Highway 101 corridor, if it has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions in the region or if its ridership justifies the roughly $600 million invested in the system to date.