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AC Editorial: Yes on Measure I, support SMART

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Many North Bay residents are well aware of the struggles and challenges that SMART has faced in its first two years of commuter rail service. Those challenges are significant and are worth discussing before we arrive at an endorsement on Measure I, the sales tax extension that supports the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit agency on the March 3 ballot.

By way of a spoiler alert, we are recommending a “yes” vote on Measure I, but not without reservations or while wearing blinders. We hope that, given additional revenue, SMART will be able to overcome early obstacles and deliver the world-class transit system that the North Bay needs.

SMART’s latest problem — a troubling lack of transparency for a public agency — is self-inflicted. When the Press Democrat asked SMART for daily ridership data, something that most transit agencies readily report, the request was met with silence. Only weeks after an official public records act request were the numbers finally released.

General Manager Farhad Mansourian has had a long career in public service and knows better than to stonewall the media. While he has been helpful in answering the Argus-Courier’s questions, a communication embargo with our colleagues at The Press Democrat is not a good look for transparency.

Given additional revenue, SMART must develop a robust communications strategy that both highlights the agency’s successes while also being accountable for missteps.

A second problem SMART has is unfulfilled promises. When voters in Sonoma and Marin counties in 2008 approved SMART’s foundational quarter-cent sales tax measure, we were promised a 70-mile rail and bike trail system from Cloverdale to Larkspur with two stations in Petaluma.

When service began in August 2017, trains only ran between San Rafael and northern Santa Rosa and there was one station in downtown Petaluma. Slowly, the system has been expanded. SMART now serves the Larkspur ferry terminal and construction is underway to extend service to Windsor by the end of next year.

But, despite piecemeal bike path construction, including a new scenic trail across Petaluma, the full path system is still lagging rail development. Petaluma’s second station at Corona Road, which will include 150 parking spaces, is still tied up in a complicated land deal involving the city, SMART and a developer.

The extension to Cloverdale, meanwhile, will likely cost more than $300 million, which will have to come from other agencies. The Measure I sales tax, SMART says, will help refinance its debt from constructing the initial segment, not pay for new construction.

Given additional revenue, SMART must come up with a plan to fulfill the original promises made to voters in 2008.

Another problem that SMART has is not entirely its own, but one it shares with the rest of society. Within the first two years of operations, there were at least 10 fatalities along the SMART tracks due to pedestrians being hit by trains. About half were determined to be suicides.

The suicides points to a broader mental health issue, and SMART can and should continue to convene partners to address this problem. Given additional revenue, SMART must improve its safety record with a goal of zero fatalities.

Taking these problems into account, voters should still support Measure I. Without the additional revenue, SMART has warned that it will need to cut staff and reduce service, leading to a downward spiral that could decrease ridership and eventually end the train before it has had a chance to succeed.

We have invested more than $600 million in commuter rail so far, and it would be tragic to walk away now and mothball the train after only two years. Measure I would extend the quarter-cent sales tax by 30 years after it is due to sunset nine years from now, so it will not increase sales taxes beyond what we have been paying since 2008.

As long as SMART still exists, we have an opportunity to expand the system so that it can one day reach its full potential. We will get that second station in east Petaluma, and transit-oriented housing developments around stations up and down the line. We will extend the line to Cloverdale.

There is even an opportunity, in the distant future, to extend the line east, to American Canyon, or across a rebuilt San Rafael Bridge to Richmond, linking SMART to Amtrak or BART. Perhaps one day we will electrify the line, like CalTrain is doing, and save greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating diesel engines.

If SMART goes away, then these opportunities go away.

On March 3, vote “yes” on Measure I to support commuter rail in the North Bay and the bright future it represents.

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