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In The News

Backtracking: SMART

Opponents of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit passenger train system have always bumped up against a solid barrier: In 2008, 69.5 percent of district voters cast ballots for Measure Q, the quarter-cent sales tax that serves as the financial foundation for the rail line.

Almost as soon as election officials certified the vote, opponents began a relentless campaign to kill the sales tax. SMART opponents formed RepealSMART, a coalition focused on taking the sales tax measure back to voters. The group is collecting signatures and has until Jan. 28 to gather enough names to qualify a repeal measure for the June or November ballot. But as with almost everything SMART, it's not that simple.

When voters approved the measure, which will—unless repealed—remain in effect for 20 years, they voted for a rail line that would stretch from Cloverdale to Larkspur and could count on revenue from sales tax to cover a major portion of costs. In Marin, 62.6 percent of voters approved the measure; 73.5 percent of Sonoma County voters did so. The larger number of voters casting affirmative ballots in Sonoma County reflects a longstanding split between the two counties. Sonoma has been more amenable to a rail line than Marin, and voters there have been more willing to pay for it.

In 2008, rail proponents managed to clear the magic two-thirds margin, but they did so right as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression hit the country. The economic slump crushed sales tax projections for the nascent transportation district. That, combined with overly optimistic estimates about the scope of needed construction, forced SMART to rethink its strategy. That kind of reassessment is common in the rail-building business; it's not unique to SMART.

When SMART took a hard look at its options, board members decided to tackle construction of the rail line in phases. The first phase, a section from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, would cost about $360 million. Money from the sales tax and revenue from bonds could cover the cost, along with an infusion of cash from government transportation programs. It was a scaled-down version of the system that could, SMART said, be running by 2015 to 2016. That was later than the complete system was supposed to be running, but a train line between the two counties would run, proponents said, and would be the start of the rail line as first envisioned. Opponents say they voted for an entire rail line, not just a first phase with completion at some undetermined date.

Clay Mitchell, co-chairman of RepealSMART, says about 200 volunteers are gathering signatures to place the repeal measure on the ballot, and the effort is running on about $15,000 in donations. Mitchell insists the repeal effort isn't intended to derail SMART but to take the funding mechanism back to the voters to determine whether they want to, in essence, re-ratify the SMART plan.

Supporters say repealing the sales tax would kill SMART and to say otherwise is fallacious. "For them to say they are not trying to kill SMART" is disingenuous, it's misleading, says Andy Peri, advocacy director at the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. "If they meet their goals, it would [likely end SMART" because of the difficulty of reinstating a sales tax. The bike coalition has supported SMART from the start (as has its Sonoma County equivalent). Part of the rail plan includes a bike and pedestrian pathway running parallel to the train tracks. The bike coalitions have worked to help SMART secure transportation funds for the pathway, and SMART remains committed to building the pathway as part of a multimodaltransportation alternative to Highway 101.

Mitchell maintains that voters should have a right to decide whether to proceed with SMART's phased approach or pull the plug. "Our goal is not just to be an impediment," says Mitchell. "The immediate goal is simply this: The project has changed substantially, and we feel that the right thing to do is to let people either ratify it or reject the changes that have been made."

But Perisays the SMART construction plan "is absolutely what we voted for. They talk about the project being shortened. The project has been deferred. That's a key distinction. Portions of this project have been deferred—they have not been cut." Exactly where additional money would come from to build successive phases has yet to be determined, but Periand other SMART supporters say that funding can and will become available and SMART should proceed because interest rates are low, as are construction costs. It's true, adds Peri, "the project we voted for is not going to be completed in the timeframe that was expected because of the economic recession, but that's not as flashy of an argument to make, and it would not probably get as many signatures."

Now that RepealSMARThas embarked on its signature gathering campaign, a big question remains: What are the consequences of a win? It's a question that hasn't been considered sufficiently, says FarhadMansourian, SMART's general manager. SMART believes that "The California and the U.S. Constitutions require public agencies to fulfill their contractual obligations." If RepealSMARTsucceeds and the measure makes it on the ballot in November, according to SMART estimates, "We will have about $200 million of obligations. I am told by our legal analysts that the courts have always held" that those obligations would have to be paid. "(There's) not even one case of law that says otherwise." It means that with about $25 million a year coming in from the quarter-cent sales tax, the revenue would "continue to be collected for close to nine years" with no train system at the end of that time. That would be the "ramification of their so-called success."

It's still unclear exactly how many signatures RepealSMARTneeds to qualify its measure for the ballot. Much of the SMART controversy occurs in unknown territory, in large part because the district covers two counties. RepealSMARTbelieves that election registrars in both counties will certify anything above 14,924 valid signatures. "SMART seems to still paint this as unsure," Mitchell says. "The registrars have made it clear to us that they will certify anything above that number."

But SMART believes that a section of the state's election code sets the bar much higher, about 40,000 valid signatures. "We've always said it's the high number," says Mansourian. The repeal people say something different. From what our lawyers are telling me, it's not an issue; it's the law. They're trying to find a loophole. From our point of view, the burden of proof is on them."

Mitchell and the RepealSMARTsupporters believe that Proposition 218 allows the bar to be set at the low number, 14,924. While that may be in dispute, another provision of Prop. 218 isn't open to interpretation—and slants the table in favor of RepealSMART.

Voters passed Prop. 218 in 1996. Among other provisions, it mandates that a special tax needs a two-thirds margin to pass. But a repeal needs only a simple majority. Not exactly a level playing field. Mitchell, who states he's "basically a small-government" person, says that's the law, and if SMART proponents see anything unfair about it, they should work to change the law rather than attack people who want to use it to overturn the SMART tax measure. That sentiment echoes a no-tax, no-spend, anti-government fever that has swept the country. It's appropriate, according to the dogma, that government should be forced to clear an almost insurmountable two-thirds mountain before passing a special tax, one that's aimed at a specific purpose like SMART. (And yet that's just what happened in 2008.)

From the start, opponents have charged that SMART has underestimated the cost of construction and eventual revenue associated with a rail line. They also have charged that SMART officials have consistently overestimated the number of riders who would eventually board trains. And they have charged that SMART also overestimated the effects trains will have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and freeway congestion. Both sides have presented their dueling statistics for years. SMART proponents say that when opponents claim they just want to air facts and assess numbers, the opponents are again being disingenuous. It amounts to paralysis by analysis, say proponents, ensuring that nothing ever happens.

Sometimes, SMART proponents say, it takes a bold move to create a new paradigm, and that's what a train system can add to the North Bay transportation infrastructure. In 1997, CalthorpeAssociates studied freeway traffic in Marin and Sonoma counties and concluded that widening Highway 101 wasn't the best use of public money. The study proposed building a rail backbone that could serve the region into the far future. Those conclusions reflect a truism among traffic engineers: If you build freeway lanes, they will fill; rail lines have a more elastic carrying capacity.

Until fairly recently, SMART opponents have had the most prominent voices in the local press because the opponents were more active than proponents. That's begun to change. A group called the SMART Riders Coalition is working to support SMART and oppose the tax repeal effort. The coalition staged an event in Sonoma County and plans to be at the Dec. 21 SMART board meeting to support the district. Mansourianwill deliver a report at the meeting that will include information about whether the district has been successful in its plan to sell bonds to complete the financing picture for the first phase of construction.

In addition to support from the SMART Riders, the district also received a boost from a recent poll commissioned by the North Bay Leadership Council, a coalition of businesses that formed 21 years ago to tackle policy issues. It shows that 58 percent of voters polled still support SMART, despite the onslaught of opposition. Mitchell points out that the results represent a decline from the 69.5 percent approval in 2008. But considering the decibels emanating from the opposition, proponents say, the numbers still favor SMART. (Obviously, opponents disagree.) The rest of the polling data shows that 32 percent of respondents favor repealing the tax measure; about 10 percent are undecided. That 32 percent opposition is about the same percentage that opposed the tax measure in 2008. Although the percentage of supporters slipped from 69.5 percent to 58 percent, the slippage went into an undecided category, not into outright opposition.

The leadership council and the other members of the SMART Riders Coalition can act as surrogates for SMART as the fight over the repeal effort continues. SMART cannot engage in political duels, meaning support from the groups could be crucial. The leadership council worked to pass Measure Q in 2008 and continues its support of SMART as a member of the SMART Riders Coalition. Friends of SMART and the Marin County Bicycle Coalition also are key members, along with environmental groups.

The SMART Riders Coalition also includes North Bay labor organizations that are working with the business interests in the leadership council. That also was the case in 2008—which is not surprising. Business and labor both see SMART as a job-creation package. If the bond sales go through as SMART hopes, first construction will create about 900 jobs in the North Bay.

Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the leadership council, says the impacts of traffic and transportation have been the top priorities among policy concerns for business in 20 of the council's 21-year history. And alterative transportation—like SMART—has placed high on the list.

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