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SMART must earn sales tax extension

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SMART would like you, Petaluma voter, to give the transit agency a quarter cent of every dollar you spend for the next 40 years. The rail authority is asking voters to renew its foundational sales tax, Measure Q, 10 years before it is set to expire.

The 30 year extension, funding SMART through 2059, will be on the March 2020 ballot, and there is no guarantee it will pass with the required two-thirds majority in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The election is still more than four months away, and it is too soon to take a stance on the tax measure. In order to win our endorsement, though, there are several steps SMART must take.

There will be plenty of competing tax measures coming up next year, and SMART would be smart to mount a robust campaign highlighting its successes while explaining how it will improve on its failings.

The first benchmark SMART must hit is to start service to Larkspur by the end of the year. SMART says the 2.2-mile extension from San Rafael to near the Larkspur ferry building is on track to open later this year.

It will fulfill a promise made in 2008 when nearly 70% of voters originally approved Measure Q. There are other promises left to fulfill, but the Larkspur extension is the most imminent, and it will give SMART riders a useful connection at the southern end of the line. The Larkspur ferry can take riders on to downtown San Francisco, Giants games and, starting this year, Warriors games at the new Chase Center.

Second, SMART must articulate a plan to build a second station in Petaluma. For local voters, this is the most important promise that has yet to be kept.

The SMART board and the Petaluma City Council have recently negotiated with a developer seeking a deal to create the second station, so we are hopeful that there will be an announcement soon. A second station at Corona Road would include a 150-space parking lot next to a new housing development.

It would relieve parking pressure on the downtown SMART station, which is also planned for a mixed-use development. We don’t expect the station to be built in four months, but by the March election, the Petaluma station should be included in the contract for work on the Windsor extension.

If this deadline is not met, then SMART’s station may not get built until some uncertain future date when the Healdsburg extension work commences. And if that happens, SMART’s sales tax extension will look much less appealing to Petaluma voters.

Third, SMART needs to come up with a plan to fund the completion of the bike path adjacent to the rail line. The $135 million needed to build the rest of the 70-mile bike path is not included in the sales tax extension.

SMART officials have noted that they have been successful in obtaining grant funding for bike path work, and we want assurance that there are grant funds available to at least close the gaps in the bike path along the existing rail line.

One such gap through Petaluma was recently closed. A beautiful new bike path that takes users from Southpoint Boulevard, under the freeway, through a large vacant property, over the Petaluma River on a new bridge and ending at Payran Street, opened with zero fanfare. No ribbon cutting. No press release. No social media mention.

SMART, here’s a communications tip. As election day approaches, celebrate your successes like the opening of a new bike path segment. Explain to the public the good you are doing in the community, like promoting cycling, providing an alternative to driving and reducing traffic and greenhouse gas emissions. If not, the public will only read about cost overruns and fatal accidents.

That brings us to our last point. SMART must improve safety along the line. Ten people have been killed by SMART trains since service started a little more than two years ago. Many of those were suicides.

If this five-deaths-per-year average continues over the course of SMART’s proposed sales tax extension until 2059, then trains will have killed more than 200 people, and that is unacceptable.

Polls show the SMART sales tax extension passing with around 70% of the vote, not much higher than the two-thirds required to pass. A lot can happen in the next four months, and SMART officials have a lot of work to convince voters to give them their support.

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