SMART takes steps toward building campaign for early sales-tax renewal in March 2020

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Supporters of SMART’s push to seek an early extension of its sales-tax funding at the ballot box in March, nearly a decade before its current measure expires, have begun to assemble their campaign team as the rail agency contends with fallout over the recent pair of pedestrian deaths on the tracks in Rohnert Park.

Elected representatives in Sonoma and Marin counties are expected to serve in key roles in the campaign. David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, and Novato Mayor Eric Lucan, both of whom are on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board, said they will join the effort. Cynthia Murray, a former Marin County supervisor who served as chairwoman of SMART’s successful 2008 sales-tax campaign, confirmed she’ll also be involved, but not as the campaign’s leader.

The pieces are coming together before the 12-member SMART board decides whether it will follow through on a recommendation by agency staff to seek an extension of the quarter-cent tax next spring. Measure Q, which received 70% of the vote in 2008, sunsets in 2029. A successful measure could extend the sales tax to at least 2049.

SMART officials want to extend the public funding window in the near future in order to begin restructuring escalating debt costs, which are at $17 million and rising. Trains operating on the 43-mile line running from northern Santa Rosa to San Rafael have served nearly 1.3 million riders since SMART’s launch in August 2017.

San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, SMART’s board chairman, said he expects that the board will adopt the sales-tax extension measure for the ballot in March.

“The thought at this point is not to increase the sales-tax percentage, but extend it another, say, 20 years, but that’s not been decided either,” he said. “That’s basically still where we’re at.”

But a pair of deaths on back-to-back days in late June at the same train crossing in Rohnert Park has cast a cloud over the commuter rail agency at the very time its public image needs to shine brightest to earn voters’ support. In the 22 months since trains began service, six people on foot or bike have been killed on the tracks, including two deaths that were ruled suicides.

Supporters of SMART say they intend to focus on explaining the efforts made to address safety issues while touting the wider benefits of the train system for Sonoma and Marin County residents.

“There’s a great benefit to the system, but there is that risk that exists for the accidents that have happened and the tragedies that have resulted because of it,” said Rabbitt. “If people are going to use these accidents to not vote for the extension of SMART within the two counties, then I’m not sure if they were really in favor of SMART in the first place. The system as a whole is working, and it’s actually working pretty well.”

The board is not set to make its decision on the ballot measure until this fall, when it receives a strategic plan that is expected to detail how the funding extension would support service on the existing line and bolster efforts to extend it north of Windsor, to Healdsburg and ultimately to Cloverdale.

The sales tax has generated $289 million in its first decade, with annual revenue anticipated at $39 million this upcoming fiscal year.

Tax revenues, however, have failed to meet projections. The Great Recession, which sent the economy into a tailspin in 2008, caused a downturn in employment and consumer spending that lasted for about seven years.

As a result, SMART is all but certain to fall far short of initial projections that it would collect $890 million in taxes over the life of Measure Q. Critics called those projections inflated even a decade or more ago and have continued to hit SMART over the delays in its buildout, as rail officials were forced to extend the existing line in phases and significantly postpone completion of a parallel bike and pedestrian path.

Reauthorizing the tax now will help the agency plan for an economic downturn and limit its use of reserves, which stand at $17 million, according to Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer.

The board is set to consider the ballot measure at a meeting in October or November. It faces a Dec. 6 deadline to make the March 2020 ballot.

SMART plans to trigger a poll by the end of the month to gauge voter support for a sales-tax extension and help the 12-member campaign committee shape its strategy. The poll and outside pollster will cost about $40,000, according to Phillips.

Tax measures for specific purposes, like the SMART tax, must win approval from two-thirds of voters, which is a high bar to clear and demands sufficient lead time, said Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council, an employer-led public policy group.

“They are going to need to get started soon,” she said of the campaign. “I think renewal is not as hard as getting the first one passed, because it’s not a new tax, just continuing what people are already paying. So I don’t think you need the same intensity of campaign, but you do need to get the message out to continue the tax.”

The seemingly slow start is a worry for ardent supporters of the train system, among them Jack Swearingen, chairman of Friends of SMART, a citizens group that promotes regional commuter rail.

“Sure, it’s a concern. But on the other hand, SMART wants to be very, very deliberate and certain of the steps it takes,” he said. “At the moment, it’s 50-50 (it passes), but by the time March rolls around, I’m hoping for 85% certainty. We have a good chance, but I’ve got to be real — it’s a tough battle, it’s not a shoo-in.”

A renewal campaign will also require a potent fundraising effort, said Murray. Contributors to the 2008 SMART measure, including the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, and large employers in the region such as Medtronic, are viewed as possible repeat donors.

The size of the campaign coffers will depend on an outreach plan. It could involve mailers, social media marketing and campaign events. The message to voters may also have to address the deaths of pedestrians on the tracks.

Rabbitt, in an interview, reiterated a warning that SMART has sought to cement with local residents since the first round of train tests years ago.

“When the arms come down and the lights are flashing, be patient and wait, be safe, stay alive. It’s a way to combine all of that going forward,” said Rabbitt. “I’m not trying to take away from the tragedy, but put it in perspective. It is our new reality in the North Bay, having a train that’s on the tracks and moving at a good clip. We’ve made the investment, we need to continue it for the next generation, and we have more work to do along the corridor.”

“There’s work to do,” he added, speaking of the campaign. “We just need to accelerate the organization part of it, but it’s a little easier if you have the wherewithal to plant it in someone’s lap and say, ‘Take it and run with it.’ Is it late? I don’t know. It’s not early.”

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

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