Close to Home: In response to the grand jury criticism

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The Sonoma County grand jury’s recent report on the SMART rail project fails to provide a true picture of the project. Instead of looking at SMART’s impressive progress to date, the jury chooses to rehash old news — and then back it up with shallow research and superficial analysis.

This is a shame, because readers may be left with the impression that SMART is struggling, when the truth is that the project is rapidly moving toward train service in Sonoma and Marin counties within the next two years.

The grand jury “found that SMART has sound executive leadership” under General Manager Farhad Mansourian. But its review of the 12-member board of directors, composed primarily of elected officials from the two counties, is generally negative.

That’s odd, because when it comes to the board’s primary responsibility – ensuring competent management of the project – the jury gives a thumbs-up: “SMART has faced several significant management changes since Measure Q was approved in 2008,” the report states. “Such transitions can often be disruptive and even catastrophic for a public works project. In this case, these adjustments appear to have generated positive change. For example, greater transparency is evident in financial reports and project reviews. The board is to be commended for successfully handling the management changes.”

Still, the grand jury calls for “a more active role with stronger oversight by SMART’s board of directors.” But what could be more active than changing the professional leadership of the organization and then overseeing his work that has resulted in the construction of 43 miles of railroad during one of the worst fiscal crises of our generation?

A central theme of the report is that SMART did not adequately foresee the catastrophic recession of 2008 and has not adequately forecast the sales tax income many years into the future. This criticism ignores the fact that Measure Q was prepared before the downturn became evident. It also is old news.

SMART’s board knew in late 2010 that economic conditions threatened to cripple the project, and it took bold action. The board decided to move ahead with a phased project, first connecting the two county seats, San Rafael and Santa Rosa. Since then, under the board’s direction and the leadership of Mansourian, SMART has obtained additional regional and federal funds that will extend the line south to Larkspur and north to the Sonoma County airport.

These are indicators of a healthy project and an organization that is moving forward. But the grand jury wants to focus on the past. Because financial projections in 2008 didn’t turn out to be accurate, the jury now recommends “the 2014 Strategic Plan Update include a comparison between the original financial plans … and the current outlook” and for SMART to “engage the services of an independent economist to provide a forecast.” But that’s exactly what was done in 2008.

The third recommendation is “The 2014 Strategic Plan Update [should] provide a forecast of operating and maintenance costs.” But the report also notes that these “actual costs will not be understood until labor contracts and operating logistics are better known – probably in 2015.” So why forecast them in 2014 without adequate data?

These examples suggest that the grand jury recommendations were not well thought through. The economy and SMART’s finances have changed in six years, and the board and its management team have adjusted. What has not changed are the reasons that residents of the two counties voted for SMART in the first place:

To provide an alternative to a congested Highway 101.

To provide a tool to reduce sprawl and facilitate city-centered growth patterns.

To fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which primarily are produced by automobiles in Marin and Sonoma counties.

One-sided criticism of SMART based on economics alone falls far short of a thorough analysis. The grand jury’s report does not offer any new insight into SMART, a project that will improve our economy, our environment and our quality of life in the North Bay for generations to come.

Jack Swearengen is chairman of Friends of SMART.

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