SMART completes bike path across Petaluma

The new trail connects Southpoint Boulevard with Payran Street, but gaps in the full system remain.|

The completion of another piece of bicycle and pedestrian path along the SMART line would normally call for only celebration, but a new $3.3 million segment in Petaluma comes as cyclists are reconsidering their political support of the North Bay’s commuter rail agency as it moves closer to seeking early renewal of a sales tax this March.

Leaders of the region’s bicycling community say their members increasingly question Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s commitment to the 70-mile pathway meant to parallel the rail line. The latest section of multiuse trail, a 1.2-mile segment that includes a free span bridge over the Petaluma River, will move the finished length to 21 miles, less than a third of the planned total.

The slow pace of work has factored in a breakdown of the alliance that cycling groups had formed with SMART more than a decade ago to pass the sales tax measure that underwrites the rail line.

“We find ourselves in such an awkward position, because our values are aligned with SMART’s. We’re at a loss of what to do here,” said Bjorn Griepenburg, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition’s policy and planning director. “They either don’t care about gaining our support, or just think we should support this by default. They’re failing to realize they’ve lost the trust, which has eroded among our supporters.”

SMART officials, however, say that despite growing financial pressures, they’re making progress and hope to continue the partnership with bicycle advocates to deliver the project outlined for voters in 2008.

They point to the completion of the latest segment in Petaluma - from Payran Street north to Southpoint Boulevard - as well as 2 miles of new path between San Rafael and Larkspur.

Funding has been secured for an additional 9 miles, and those segments are scheduled to be built by 2023, officials said.

The new sections will close two gaps, between Petaluma and Penngrove and Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa.

“We are committed to completing the multiuse path over time, leveraging sales-tax dollars and other local sources combined with vigorously seeking outside monies,” Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly, a SMART board member, said at a meeting last month. “We’re not in a position to make an ironclad commitment about a certain dollar amount or a certain timeframe.”

SMART has spent nearly $57 million on the pathway, about 60% of which has been paid for with grant funding leveraged through sales-tax revenues from Measure Q, the 2008 tax measure. The agency estimates the cost to finish the remaining 40 miles of unfunded path at between $73 million and $78 million in today’s construction costs. SMART doesn’t know when it will have that money or who it will come from.

After the end of this year, the agency will still have about 25 miles of the rail line to build, from its station near the Sonoma County Airport to Cloverdale.

“We’re very stingy,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told the agency’s board at its ?Sept. 18 meeting. “We try to spend as little Measure Q (money) on both rail and path so we can extend that, and that’s what we have done and we’ll continue to do that. We’ve got many miles to go, no question. But we’re all on the same side.”

But the lack of assurance on a timeline for the path may prove pivotal with cyclists, reflecting the larger quandary SMART faces in the run-up to its expected tax measure.

Top SMART officials and board members have been unwilling to provide the public with tentative dates for buildout of the bike path and the northern extensions of the rail line beyond Windsor, leaving a central question unanswered in the minds of voters.

In 2008, many in the bicycling community cast ballots favoring the train largely because of guarantees of the path, said Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

“People feel there was this bait and switch,” Weaver said. “Cyclists are often environmentalists and pro-public transportation, and feel generally having a train is a good thing and many of us use the train. But there’s still this bad taste in our mouths from feeling that we’re not getting what we were promised for our support. That’s the dilemma.”

Last month, about 1,000 of the roughly 6,000 people on the Marin County Bicycle Coalition’s email list responded to a poll question about SMART’s planned quarter-cent tax renewal, with about half saying they would offer support for it if placed on the March 2020 ballot.

The other 50% were divided evenly among those who were either undecided or firmly against ensuring public money for the rail agency for decades to come.

The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition had similar results in its own poll, according to Weaver. The results reflected a sharp drop in support among polled members, from the 83% who backed Measure Q in 2008, to 50% signaling they would endorse a tax renewal.

SMART, in its recently updated spending plan tied to the tax renewal, eliminated a specific financial commitment on the pathway extension. Weaver called the move a “slap in the face.”

Griepenburg, who also sits on the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition’s board of directors, agreed.

“Especially seeing that language removed from the last expenditure plan and the way that the SMART board responded at the last meeting doesn’t exactly instill much confidence that staff and the board want to be committed to build the pathway in a timely fashion,” Griepenburg said. “For a lot of folks, it’s felt like the pathway has never been a priority for SMART, and that’s a key for our supporters. The pathway is by far the No. 1 issue.”

SMART needs a two-thirds majority for its tax measure to pass and bicycle advocates have frequently reminded the rail agency at its public meetings that they were among the rail line’s most vocal supporters in the last campaign.

But despite the growing outcry, Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, one the SMART board’s longest-serving members, said she doesn’t believe cyclists will oppose a sales-tax renewal.

“They will vote for it, handily,” Arnold said at a recent board meeting. “SMART has not forgotten their pledge to build the pathways, and sadly, many of the advocates do not understand the reality of getting permits to go through wetlands, a (financial) recession that came and local government approvals.”

Neither bicycle group has taken an official position on the tentative measure ahead of the SMART board formally approving the sales-tax proposal for the March primary election. The coalitions may take a stance and recommend how members should vote or remain neutral on the issue.

Patrick Seidler, president of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives for Marin, called the pathway “the glue that preserves the integrity of the SMART promise.” He urged the agency’s board to maintain a focus on fulfilling its pledges, including plans for the trail. Sidelining that work risks losing a critical voting bloc before the election, he said.

“What I’m saying to you is don’t make your supporters opponents,” said Seidler, a former member of the SMART bicycle committee. “This is when you want to grab them and bear hug them in.”

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