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SMART passengers offer opinions of rail service as key ballot tax measure looms

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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.

Following the September death of a 41-year-old woman at the same Rohnert Park crossing — a suicide, according to police — the City Council elected to spend $66,000 for an outside consultant study of the city’s three crossings. The recommended actions are due in the spring.

Led by then-Mayor Gina Belforte, the Rohnert Park City Council also considered formally requesting SMART drop train speeds through the busy Golf Course Drive intersection. The council’s majority later decided to wait on results of the commissioned study before taking further action.

For Belforte, the federal review only strengthens her resolve that additional changes should be made to the intersection to increase public safety.

“It just validates the concern that it is a problematic crossing,” she said last month.

Over the summer, SMART added more signs and spent $500,000 to install sidewalk fencing at 30 of the system’s crossings, including at the Rohnert Park location now under federal review. SMART officials insisted after each of the fatal collisions in Rohnert Park that the train line meets or exceeds all safety requirements, and poses no danger to the public. None of the dozen passengers asked Friday by a reporter about the 11 fatal incidents involving the SMART train since it started operations said it would weigh into their decision whether to support the sales-tax extension ballot measure.

In September, the North Bay Leadership Council commissioned a poll on the ballot measure among 500 registered, likely voters in the two counties. The results showed 69% of respondents would support the early quarter-cent tax extension, according to San Francisco-based political consultant The Wickers Group, which conducted the poll.

Stan Gow, 67, a resident of Santa Rosa’s west end neighborhood, said SMART can count him among its most loyal acolytes. As he waited in his motorized wheelchair on the platform in San Rafael for a return trip to downtown Santa Rosa on Friday afternoon, Gow said he usually takes the train two or three times a week, to the Sunday farmers market in Marin Civic Center, shops in Petaluma and Novato and also to doctor appointments near the SMART stop not far from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

SMART, he said, is more accommodating to him and others who are disabled than regional bus services he used more frequently in the past. Gow wished the trains had areas for the disabled to sit next to the window and take in the views, but otherwise said he’s very satisfied and plans to support the ballot measure just as he did in 2006, when the first attempt at the sales tax narrowly failed, as well as in 2008 when it passed.

“I’ve been waiting for it for about 30 years,” Gow said of commuter rail. “I use public transit, and the speed is just such an improvement. Sometimes I just go for a train ride to get out and just turn my head. Yeah, there’s things that could be better, but it’s a pretty good ride.”

SMART is set to extend its line another stop 2 miles south when it opens service to Larkspur in mid-December, providing more direct access from the train to the Golden Gate Ferry to San Francisco. Rail agency staff has yet to set a specific start date, but regular stops at another new platform in downtown Novato won’t be far off from then either once the system transitions to an expanded weekday schedule starting on Jan. 2.

The new schedule will eliminate several gaps in existing service during busy commute times by adding more trains, plus additional stations. That comes with price tags of $55.4 million and $7 million, respectively, for the track, high-tech safety systems and platforms. SMART also plans to open its $65 million extension to Windsor by the end of 2021. Altogether, the developments could help push the vote total over the supermajority threshold needed for approval.

“If we could’ve done it sooner, it would be even better, but it’s good timing,” said Novato Mayor Eric Lucan, who serves on the SMART board and also co-chairs the campaign committee seeking passage of the ballot measure. “The entire board knows that renewing this measure is critical for SMART’s success. None of us want to be in position to have to make a hard decision if we’re not successful, and so we are as committed as ever to see this thing through.”

The Larkspur extension is a perk that Dick Reier, 71, of Santa Rosa, said would draw him to pay for a ticket, rather than just ride it for free as he did Friday for his maiden journey on the train. He said he looks forward to taking SMART to the ferry to get to San Francisco Giants games next season.

“Oh yeah, I’d do that in a heartbeat,” Reier said. “I don’t cross the Golden Gate Bridge anymore. It’s just too much of a hassle. But this was super quiet, super clean and smooth.”

Headed to downtown Santa Rosa on a northbound train, with a queue of vehicles already lining up on Highway 101 just outside the window between Novato and Petaluma, Tiffany Smith, 32, said the added train service to Larkspur, where she lives, is something she’s excited about, too. Instead of just taking SMART north on the weekends to see family and her boyfriend, she envisions riding it during the week as well, allowing her to make more frequent visits.

“I don’t have a car, I just ride my bike, so it’ll be a lot more convenient for me to get to Santa Rosa,” said Smith, a hairdresser. “I would not mind paying taxes for that. And it’s nice that they have … days when it’s available for free.”

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

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