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In Measure I tax renewal, SMART train faces critical test with voters

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When voters in Sonoma and Marin counties a dozen years ago approved the launch of a taxpayer-supported commuter rail agency, they granted overwhelming support to a plan underwritten by big promises and coupled with high expectations.

It would return daily passenger service to the North Bay for the first time in nearly 60 years, building 70 miles of track on an underused or abandoned rail corridor from the ferry terminal at Larkspur to the depot in Cloverdale.

To supporters, including thousands of regular riders, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit is making headway toward that vision. Its green-and-gray, diesel-powered trains began rolling with paid passengers in summer 2017, and its expanding 45-mile line now links Santa Rosa to Larkspur — and to San Francisco by ferry.

And weekday ridership continues to grow, galvanizing supporters who see it as a transformational and more climate-friendly alternative to commuting on traffic-clogged Highway 101.

Opponents, however, say it has fallen far short of its ambitious goals, with a delayed build-out, guarded approach to publicly addressing questions about ridership and public safety, and soaring costs that critics say are unreasonable.

Now, SMART’s future may be at stake in a titanic, two-county political clash sparked by its decision to seek early extension of the quarter-cent sales tax that provides the bulk of the train system’s operating funds. The current tax runs out in 2029; SMART officials want an early 30-year renewal to help pay down rising debt costs tied to development of the line.

By 2059, the measure is expected to generate about $2.4 billion for SMART. Without approval, train officials say, they’ll be forced to slash passenger service and make deep cuts to their workforce.

Measure I on the March 3 ballot has stoked a fiery debate that caught many of SMART’s longtime champions by surprise. It has drawn in two wealthy political donors who have bankrolled rival campaigns to the tune of $2.6 million, making it by far the most expensive North Bay ballot measure on record.

The public debate has been grounded in several fundamental questions about SMART, including whether it has justified its cost — now at $653 million — and earned sufficient trust among residents to warrant reinvestment in the Bay Area’s newest public transit system.

Nonriders’ support pivotal

The political test comes just 30 months after SMART started service, and following a year marked by a string of eight deaths along the line as well as sharp criticism about lagging overall ridership, which dipped more than 2% in the second year of operation, a Press Democrat analysis found earlier this year.

The outcome hinges on which side wins support among nonriders, who make up most of the electorate in Sonoma and Marin counties. Measure I requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

Supporters say SMART has demonstrated its wider public benefit, offering a transportation option that will be in greater demand in the North Bay over the coming decades.

“For me, it’s the big picture. The train is an asset that I believe we want to make sure that we do not abandon. That would be a horrible mistake and throwing away half-a-billion-dollars is not something I would endorse,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of SMART’s board of directors. “There’s growing pains for sure in certain areas. I don’t mean to demean that, but some of that is noise. (It’s) proven itself to be, I believe, successful to date, and will only be more successful as we go forward, as we build out along the line.”

But SMART’s critics, including some longtime foes who opposed the train from the outset, say the rail system has failed to live up to its promises, serves only a small fraction of the public and at too great an expense.

“The fundamental story is these people are not managing their costs,” said Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist who was co-chairman of two prior campaigns against SMART. “We have the responsibility to provide cost-effective transit alternatives. A rail system within suburbia has very little chance of taking many riders, because they can’t get people to where they want to go.

“If the agency is going to be transparent and accountable with the taxpayers,” he added, “it should explain this to them and then let the voters decide whether or not this is something that they want to continue to fund.”

The first attempt to pass a sales tax to support the train narrowly failed in 2006. Two years later, voters approved Measure Q, which authorized SMART and kick-started construction of the line, with 70% of the vote. SMART projections at the time showed it would cost $541 million to build the entire rail and paved pathway projects, with expected tax revenues over 20 years at $890 million.

But the recession sunk sales tax revenue, resulting in only $330 million for SMART in the first 11 years. The agency opted for a phased build-out of its line, delaying major work on the accompanying bike path and pushing off expansion of the line north beyond Santa Rosa.

The 3-mile extension to Windsor is funded and scheduled to be finished by the end of next year, but 22 miles of reconstructed line are needed to reach Healdsburg — which still needs a station — and Cloverdale, where a depot has awaited the train’s arrival since 1999.

SMART officials have not said when those extensions might happen.

Passage of Measure I will assure SMART has the funds to operate service to the planned northern terminus, but it won’t cover the $364 million the rail agency estimates it needs to complete the line, according to SMART. Total cost of the entire project is likely to approach $1 billion — roughly twice what was projected at SMART’s inception.

Pamela Demorest, who with her husband runs the Healdsburg International Short Film Festival, said she was disappointed to hear that Measure I wouldn’t guarantee SMART’s arrival in town. She has ridden the train just once, on a free day late last year. She enjoyed the experience, but, like many, she’s felt conflicted over how to vote this March. She’s leaning toward supporting it, weighing her stance about fares — perhaps too high — and assessment of Highway 101 congestion — unchanged — against her view that local residents need another way to get around, and ideally with less environmental impact than vehicles.

“I’d hate to have all of this scrapped based on the potential that it does have,” said Demorest, who lives in Sebastopol. “Honestly, I do think things take time and it’s a huge undertaking, and the potential value is worth supporting.”

2nd biggest public project

Among North Bay public works projects in the past two decades, the rail line is second only in scope and cost to the $1.2 billion widening of Highway 101 that began in 2001 and remains at least three years away from completion.

The rail line was hailed from the beginning as an economic engine that would generate jobs and carry commuters, but also help create denser housing in the cities along the route. So far, however, major housing and commercial projects in the county have stalled near the stations in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. Petaluma is poised to approve two large housing developments near an estimated $8 million second station off Corona Road. Windsor is expecting a pair of housing projects near its future station as well.

But until SMART completes the $65 million extension to Windsor, Andrew Smith, 67, of Santa Rosa, said the rail agency hasn’t earned his vote. With nine years remaining on the first sales tax measure, he is unwilling to buy into what he calls the “fear factor” — that service will be cut if the agency doesn’t get the early tax renewal.

SMART should make good on its plan to build north to secure support for a future measure, said Smith, a retired high-tech salesman who has never ridden the train.

“It’s a significant milestone for me to have it up there,” Smith said. “It extends the line past Santa Rosa, and it gets closer to the commitment to finish the entire system, which I think is so important for the people who voted for it.”

But without early extension of the tax, SMART officials counter, they will be forced to deplete $17 million in reserves to cover rising debt payments while making other cuts to service and jobs.

“We’re talking about what we’ve done. But we’re not hiding the fact that if this doesn’t renew, then there’s going to need to be some very tough decisions,” said SMART Chairman Eric Lucan, a Novato councilman who serves as co-chairman of the pro-Measure I campaign. “There will be impacts if it does not pass, and they could be very significant. It’s not a situation I want to face.”

Tallying ridership

SMART has carried more than 1.7 million passengers since launching service in August 2017. And that service has been expanded, with new stations in Larkspur and downtown Novato, and an upgraded schedule starting this year that eliminated three 90-minute gaps between trains.

While overall ridership dipped 2.2% in the second year of operations because of a drop in weekend passengers, weekday riders — the train’s primary user group — increased 4% each year since service began. At that time, SMART projected about 3,000 passengers per weekday; through December, trains carried an average of about 2,400 riders on weekdays.

“Our weekday core ridership is growing,” Lucan said. “Now we’ve introduced these three changes — new schedule, Larkspur station, downtown Novato. We think (that) will have a big impact on our ridership as well. So when I look at it, I think the future is bright for SMART and renewing this measure just ensures that.”

This January, the first full month under the expanded train schedule and new Marin County stations, weekday rider ridership was up 26% from last year at the same time, SMART reported. Average weekday ridership grew to 2,847 during the month, according to SMART.

Until recently, the agency had resisted calls to release its weekly and daily ridership, rejecting several requests last year by The Press Democrat for those figures. SMART claimed it did not keep such records and did not need to produce them, though they are commonly reported by other transit agencies. By December, SMART reversed course and provided the numbers, which for the first time showed the overall dip in second-year ridership.

SMART officials last month conceded the episode amounted to a self-inflicted public relations wound.

“It could’ve and needed to be better. I don’t disagree,” Lucan said. “I don’t want to point fingers or throw anybody under the bus. I think it was unfortunate, both in the fact that we needed the ridership numbers out there and the timing was certainly not good from an optics perspective.”

It gave extra fodder to SMART critics who have claimed the agency is not forthright with even basic information expected of public agencies. SMART opponents said their requests for ridership numbers and other records were repeatedly denied.

“This is just not acceptable, and it’s part of why you don’t want to give them another 39 years (of taxes),” said Kentfield resident Mimi Willard, board president of the Marin County-based Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, which opposes Measure I.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager since 2011, has been a frequent foil for the agency’s most outspoken opponents, who have objected to his leadership and hefty compensation package. He is among the highest-paid public officials in the North Bay, earning $319,595 in base salary in 2019 — comparable to peers at the Golden Gate Bridge District and BART, which are larger than SMART.

Lucan said Mansourian would remain in his role through at least the end of his five-year contract, which runs until August 2021.

“I’m not looking to make a change,” Lucan said. “He gets attacked here and there, but I also think that he needs to be credited for what he has done. Without him, we don’t even have a train.”

Mansourian has branded SMART’s vocal foes “the naysayers,” while stressing that the 200-person agency is doing its best to build and operate a safe, reliable and entirely new transit system.

“The vision for SMART came directly from the people of Marin and Sonoma. They wanted options other than (Highway) 101. The community is going to grow and we need options,” Mansourain said. “In five years, we created an entire organization and built 43 miles and went into operations — in five years. Was it difficult? Very.

“The purpose of this is for the teachers, the nurses ... the people who work for a living, to get to work, and students who go to college,” he added. “Today, some people say, ‘Are you at a crossroads?’ And I think our vision is, ‘No, we’re just getting started.’ ”

SMART has secured $323 million in federal, state and regional funding to build the system, and has applications out for an additional $40 million in capital funds. Longtime critics say that money was needed because of SMART’s rosy revenue projections and an even more fundamental, flawed assumption — that a quarter-cent sales tax would be enough to build the system. Even some board members, Rabbitt among them, have acknowledged that a half-cent tax was needed.

Outspoken opposition

SMART’s most outspoken opponents are drawn from a mix of transit system skeptics, anti-tax hawks, and even some self-described environmentalists who allege the system has not alleviated congestion on Highway 101 or reduced carbon emissions tied to transportation.

SMART says it has, last month releasing an illustrated fact sheet that shows the average SMART rider emits a third less carbon dioxide per mile than if they drive. Each full train removes 146 cars from the roadway, according to the agency.

The Yes on Measure I campaign enjoys broad support from environmental and transportation groups, organized labor and business interests, along with endorsements from nearly all of the region’s local, state and federal elected officials.

But the opposition camp caught the pro-SMART campaign flatfooted last month when it began airing television and radio advertisements assailing the agency and the tax extension.

The opposition ads, which continue to run in prime-time slots, have been bankrolled by nearly $1.5 million donated to the No on Measure I campaign by Molly Gallaher Flater, the 35-year-old daughter of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher.

Flater, chief operating officer of Windsor-based Gallaher Homes and a board director on her father’s Santa Rosa-based Poppy Bank, has yet to answer questions about her motivation for financing the opposition effort. In a written statement in January, she asserted that SMART has yet to make good on its pledges to voters from 2008.

All but about $4,500 in contributions to the campaign have come from her.

The Yes on Measure I campaign countered late last month with a $1 million donation from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, owners of the casino outside Rohnert Park. The funds, and other contributions totaling $144,000, allowed supporters to respond with mailers, social media ads and TV and radio spots of their own.

Slim margin for tax approval

Polling by both sides shows the margin for approval is slim. In September, the North Bay Leadership Council, a SMART ally, released data showing the ballot measure with 69% support among likely voters. Last month, the opposition campaign put forward results from its own polling in November showing support at 63% in Sonoma County and 61% in Marin County, signaling the measure would fail.

Bicycle coalitions in both counties have chosen to sit on the sidelines, a sign of the frustration their ranks have voiced over SMART’s decision to not commit tax revenues to build more of the bike and pedestrian path. So far, about 24 miles is finished — roughly a third of what was promised — with several lengthy gaps between completed segments.

“There’s a lot of barriers to giving a wholehearted yes to supporting Measure I from the perspective of the cyclist,” said Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “Since 2008 when we voted to tax ourselves for this, yes, we do have some miles of bike path that we did not have before. That’s a good thing, but we have half as much bike path as operating rail, and that’s not quite as happy. And building out the remaining parts of the path is very clearly the lowest priority.”

Petaluma resident Rick Crotta said slow progress on build-out of the rail system, as well as the paved path, swayed his decision to vote no on the measure.

“To just give them more money is like rewarding someone for bad behavior,” said Crotta, a retired businessman who has not taken the train. “If the kids don’t do something they promised to do based on their allowance and everything, am I going to raise the money I’m going to give them? No, you don’t get the money.”

SMART supporters, however, emphasize that building a transit system from scratch takes time. Rejecting the tax extension now will only cripple a valued method of transportation that’s just started rolling and attracting more riders.

“When it first came up, I was like, ‘I’m not taking the train to the ferry,’ and then I started doing it and was like, ‘Oh, this is quite nice. There’s no traffic,’” said Bessie Frank, 43, of Petaluma, who works in advertising sales in San Francisco. “Part of it is you have to give people a form of public transportation. I like it. I’d also be pissed if we built it and got it running and then they just took it down.”

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

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