Sonoma Index Tribune endorses Measure I
Editor & Associate Publisher
January 29, 2020
Sonoma Valley voters are being asked on the March 3 ballot to renew for 30 years the ¼ cent sales tax county residents pay to fund the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the SMART train.
The tax, which needs two-thirds approval, was originally passed by voters in Marin and Sonoma counties as Measure Q in 2008, when residents were essentially being asked for a leap of faith that a plan to revitalize the long-defunct rail tracks along the Highway 101 transportation corridor would generate enough ridership to alleviate weekday commute traffic while serving as one small step toward mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions on the roads.
Twelve years and $600 million later, and SMART is long-since conceptual – the first passenger trains pulled out of the gate in 2017 and voters have had two years to gauge the fledgling success of 21st century rail travel.
So far, in the 707 and 415 area codes, it’s been a mixed bag.
While the approximately 2,800 passengers who ride the train on weekdays give it accolades for comfy seats, good views, a coffee bar and, well, not having to fight the commute every morning and evening – that’s still only 2,800 regulars. Not enough to have made a noticeable dent in the still-slogging crawl twice a weekday from Santa Rosa through San Rafael. (An analysis by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat pinned the weekday ridership at closer to 2,300.)
While ridership still has time to grow, anticipated past revenues that never materialized, well, don’t. And by that we mean the expected $455 million over its first 10 years. As the Measure Q sales tax launched in 2009, so did the Great Recession. In its first decade, SMART’s revenue has been about $298 million.
Despite initial promises of a line that would run from Cloverdale to the Larkspur ferry terminal, SMART scaled back its ambitions early on, settling on a Santa Rosa to San Rafael line at its launch, with plans to ride out the recession and build from there – a plan that has kept pace with better economic fortunes. This past December saw the opening of the extension to Larkspur and rail agency officials are looking at 2021 to open a Windsor station. A third Novato station opened in mid-December, as well.
With the new stations now open, agency officials are projecting about 3 percent gains in revenue from the sales tax this year – for a total of about $39 million.
According to SMART’s numbers, overall ridership dropped by 2.2 percent in its second year since the trains launched – a total of 721,790 in year one down to 706,188 in year two. The source of the drop off was weekenders – down a full 30 percent the second year. And the trend appears to be continuing through the first three months of the third year, as more of the try-it-once casual weekend riders realize that $11.50 for a one-way ticket from Santa Rosa to Petaluma is a questionable expense on traffic-light weekends.
SMART has suffered its share of challenges. In addition to the dip in year-over-year ridership in its first two years – a small sample size, to be sure – its delayed openings of stations and establishment of a line to Cloverdale has left it open to the critics who’ve cried “boondoggle” since 2006, when SMART first came before voters as Measure R, a 20 year quarter-cent sales tax to fund the train; it failed that year by about 1.5 percentage points. Then there was a recent public relations embarrassment over refusing to release its year-over-year ridership numbers this past December. The move was mindboggling; given that voters would certainly be demanding transparency as they weigh how to cast their votes on Measure I, stonewalling a ho-hum 2.2 percent drop in ridership was poorly played.
Make no mistake: SMART’s value is as a commuter train, to take people out of their cars and off Highway 101 on workdays. The ridership numbers so far back that up.
Voters approved Measure Q for 20 years – and now with Measure I on the March ballot, SMART is coming back nearly a decade early seeking a 20 year extension. Agency officials say the extension will allow them to restructure its debt, saving $12.2 million annually – giving SMART the means to fulfill its promise of reaching Cloverdale, as well as add parking at its stations, increase frequency of trains and build more bicycle and walking paths between stations.
If Measure I fails, say SMART officials, not only will reaching Healdsburg and Cloverdale be unrealistic anytime soon, but weekend service and low-ridership weekday trains – early morning and midday – will likely have to go.
For Sonoma Valley voters, the Measure I question is largely ideological, since SMART trains don’t serve the Valley: Voters are being asked to pay a quarter cent sales tax for the promise of public transportation for a region where public transportation has been sorely lacking – yet Sonoma Valley won’t directly benefit from SMART.
Yet, in another way, Sonoma is directly affected by SMART.
As reported over the past few years in the Index-Tribune, SMART owned tracks in Schellville have been OK’d by the agency to hold Northwestern Pacific Railroad tankers stocked with highly flammable liquid petroleum gas – surely a concern to anyone in the vicinity of the tankers when they’re stocked with LPG; SMART negotiated a weak deal that essentially gave the NWP rail company rights to store the flammable gas in a fire-prone area.
It was convenient to SMART, but at the expense of the Sonoma Valley, which it doesn’t directly serve, but relies on for votes.
Like many voters in the North Bay who aren’t regular SMART passengers, Sonoma Valley support is partly philosophical – one either believes in public transportation systems as an overall community and societal benefit or one doesn’t. And then they’ll weigh SMART’s effectiveness, and the quarter-cent sales tax ding, from there.
In light of SMART’s setbacks – some self-inflicted, some not – we think the still-fledgling agency warrants the community’s support. While the agency will have another decade of sales-tax revenue to work with if Measure I falls short – and an opportunity to return with another renewal measure in 2028 – the prospects of approaching that later vote following potential cuts to service and, with that, likely lower ridership numbers aren’t enviable.
If the debt restructuring made possible by the Measure I tax renewal does result in a savings of $12.2 million annually, it would go a long way toward keeping the wheels on the track, so to speak. And with that – increase service frequency and establish much-needed bike and pedestrian pathways throughout the county.
To give up on SMART after only two years of operations would be premature – potentially a grosser waste of taxpayer money than the agency’s tax-watchdog critics have long labeled the rail service itself.
That said, SMART needs to right its train – get to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, bolster ridership and complete its bike paths – in the next few years to validate the community’s faith.
Because without community support, the next 30 years could be a long, long ride.
We recommend a YES on Measure I.