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Close to Home: Cap and trade or cap and cheat?

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This year, the state Department of Transportation distributed $224 million in cap and trade funds in the form of the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program. An $11 million grant from this rail program was awarded to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in April. The money was to be used to add third middle-train cars to SMART’s two-car trains.

The rail program guidelines clearly stated that the primary evaluation criteria were to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and that “the highest rated applications that meet the program objectives will be selected for programming.”

In August, a public records request to the Department of Transportation revealed the assumptions SMART used in its application. SMART claimed that with three-car trains, instead of two cars, daily ridership would increase from 20,016 to 30,312 riders a day.

What’s wrong with this?

These numbers represent train capacity, not ridership. As everyone who has followed SMART knows, its expected daily ridership is closer to 5,000 than 20,000, and that’s only after 20 years of operating. In its environmental impact statement prepared for the Federal Transit Administration last year, SMART projected ridership in 2035 would be 5,200 riders per day. If one person traveled round-trip, that would count as two riders.

SMART did not disclose anywhere in its application that the ridership is expected to start off at a much lower level. Based on its financial plan, adopted last December, SMART’s start-up ridership in 2017 would be less than 2,000 per day and doesn’t come close to 5,000 daily riders until 2028.

Of course, none of the expected ridership, based on SMART’s own projections, will exceed the capacity of the two-train set. And since train capacity won’t limit ridership for the foreseeable future, adding third cars will make zero difference.

What could be more troublesome?

Earlier this year, SMART attempted to mislead the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in a similar application. The difference: MTC staff recognized what SMART was doing and denied the grant. In the May 13 meeting of MTC’s Policy Advisory Council, former Marin County Supervisor Cynthia Murray had the audacity to ask MTC staff why SMART, whose application reduced emissions more than other applicants, was not awarded a grant that would theoretically reduce global warming gases. MTC’s Craig Goldblatt explained that SMART’s ridership forecast of more than 30,000 was overstated. He said the MTC would have used a daily ridership number 30 to 50 times lower than SMART’s projections.

As most Marin residents are aware, SMART has a long history of misleading voters about its ability to fund construction and operations from a quarter-cent sales tax. And it continues to do so every time it blames lower sales tax revenues for its inability to deliver the promised 70-mile rail line. It never mentions that both construction costs and debt service are far lower than SMART had projected when placing Measure Q before the voters in 2008. But SMART has now reached a new low.

The SMART board, which approved the application documents, should be ashamed. It has been criticized by two civil grand juries for not performing sufficient oversight. SMART’s claim of 20,000 daily riders is ridiculous and embarrassing.

Richard Hall of San Rafael is an activist who led the successful opposition to the priority development area at Civic Center SMART station. Mike Arnold of Novato is co-chairman of Marin Citizens for Effective Transportation.

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