SMART to seek early renewal of voter-approved sales tax in 2020
A year and a half into passenger rail service, SMART moved a step closer to going back to voters in 2020 to request renewal nearly 10 years early of the sales tax that funds the system, so it can maintain operations and hasten completion of the planned 70-mile line from Larkspur to Cloverdale.
The plan, recommended by agency staff earlier this month, advanced Wednesday with unanimous support from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board. The 12-member appointed board directed general manager Farhad Mansourian to review pushing for extension of the quarter-cent tax on the March 2020 primary election ballot — nine years before it expires. It would be part of an updated long-term strategic plan to restructure debt and finish the full rail line.
“Let’s say today you say, ‘We’re just not going to do that,’ ” Mansourian told the board at its regular meeting. “Then we will immediately start balancing the budget. You immediately start freezing the positions and cutting in anticipation of that. The sooner that we can have that answered, the sooner we can figure out the long-term finances.”
The proposed ballot measure, if authorized by the board later this year, would represent the first major test of support of the North Bay rail system since voters first backed SMART’s 20-year sales tax in 2008 through Measure Q. In the years that followed, SMART made the decision to build the track in phases because of what it says were lower tax revenues during the Great Recession — and critics pointed to minimal afternoon ridership and limited effects to traffic on the adjacent Highway 101.
With funding from Measure Q set to sunset in 2029, SMART staff asked the board to allow it to go back to voters to try to guarantee the rail system’s primary revenue stream through at least 2049. In fiscal year 2017-2018, the sales tax generated about $38 million — roughly the equivalent of that year’s capital projects budget.
“It is an opportunity for a referendum on the SMART train, if you put it up for a vote to the public,” said Chris Rogers, Santa Rosa’s vice mayor. “We need them to understand that from a financial perspective and from an environmental and community perspective, this is the value that’s being brought. Having a strategic plan for getting the public to understand (that) is going to be critical if the measure is going to be successful.”
Board members ran the gamut in their support Wednesday. Some questioned the need to move on the sales tax renewal so early and before the system meets past promises, while others suggested the future ballot measure — whichever year it comes before voters — should have no sunset. Ultimately, each saw the benefit of favoring the review process to consider the tax extension landing on the March 2020 ballot.
“The Marin and Sonoma county taxpayers have a half-billion-dollar investment in this railroad system and we need to make sure that we continue moving forward,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “There’s really no alternative but to go back to the voters for a sales tax extension. What are you going to do if it doesn’t pass, mothball the fleet? Unacceptable.”
SMART now provides rail service along 43 miles of track, from San Rafael to near Charles M. Schulz- Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. By the end of the year, the agency expects to extend the line another 2 miles south to Larkspur and add a third station in Novato.