Grand jury report faults SMART oversight
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority board of directors lacks the attention needed to navigate a complicated funding and regulatory process and deliver the commuter rail service that voters approved in 2008, the Sonoma County grand jury concluded in its latest report.
At the outset of the economic recession, the rail agency failed to inform voters about risks to its tax revenue projections, the grand jury found. Subsequently, SMART’s board of directors failed to mitigate the effects of the recession on the project, the grand jury stated, citing the large drop in tax revenue and subsequent funding gap that have caused SMART to downscale its initial project, postpone the start of rail service and curtail other infrastructure promised to voters.
While the grand jury gave agency management credit for “resourcefulness” during construction of the project and “prudent control of finances,” the panel said oversight by SMART’s board of directors has fallen short.
“A more active role with stronger oversight by SMART’s Board of Directors could create a more proactive culture, reducing the risks from unpredictable future events,” the grand jury stated.
The eight-page report, titled “The Train Has Left the Station: Five Years Later — The Outlook for SMART,” was released Monday.
It urges SMART’s board to make better use of its own advisory committees to improve oversight of the 73-mile project. The 12-member board includes elected city and county officials as well as representatives of the Golden Gate Bridge Transportation District.
SMART officials, including board members and Farhad Mansourian, the agency’s general manager since 2011, declined to comment on the grand jury findings or recommendations, saying they had yet to discuss the report in public. Board members are set to meet in September to draft a response, Mansourian said.
“The appropriate place to consider the report and deliberate is in public,” he said.
The grand jury report summarizes many of the fiscal challenges the commuter rail project has faced since it was given the go-ahead by voters in Sonoma and Marin counties almost six years ago. The report also puts forward some of the strongest points raised by SMART opponents and critics, who have charged the agency and its officials with misleading the public over the extent of the project’s funding shortfall and other fiscal risks they say are inherent in the effort.
Specifically, the grand jury found that SMART failed to inform voters in 2008 — after the onset of the economic crisis — of how its tax revenue projections would suffer in such a downturn.
Rail advocates that year succeeded in getting voters to pass Measure Q, the quarter-cent sales tax that funds the two-county commuter rail service. But it soon became clear that the slumping sales tax revenue would not be enough to fund the planned 73-mile Cloverdale-to-Larkspur rail network and an accompanying bike path promised to voters.
As a result, in 2011, the SMART board elected to shelve construction plans for large segments of the rail line at the north and south ends and push back by two years its initial launch of service.
A 43-mile, $428 million segment, from Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa to San Rafael, now is set to open in late 2016. The rest of the project, including most of the bike path, is $230 million short.