Last week, the total spending on a ballot measure to extend the funding mechanism powering the North Bay’s new train for an additional 30 years ticked past $2 million.
In less than a month, spending on the ballot measure went through the roof, making it the most expensive election in the region’s history.
Measure I, a ballot measure up for consideration by voters in Sonoma and Marin counties on March 3, will extend the quarter cent sales tax funding the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) from 2029 until 2059.
On paper, SMART is a perfect vehicle to mend fences between business groups, environmentalists and public transit advocates.
Developers will get to build up downtown by taking advantage of state and local incentives, potentially weaning North Bay cities off of their car addiction and boosting cities’ revenues. The last SMART sales tax measure, passed in 2008, had the support of bicycling advocacy groups. Many labor unions have also backed the bond this time, presumably because construction projects will give workers local jobs.
But a sudden infusion of money into the “no” campaign and a lack of support from bicycle groups this time around have made the campaign far more uncertain than its backers may have expected when they placed it on the ballot last fall.
Since Jan. 7, Molly Gallaher Flater, a business executive at the Sonoma County-based Gallaher Homes and Poppy Bank, has contributed over $1 million into NotSoSMART.org, a campaign committee aiming to stop Measure I in its tracks.
In response, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria contributed $1 million to Stay Green, Keep SMART 2020, the committee supporting Measure I, on Jan. 29. Measure I is also backed with some money from business interests, labor unions, and SMART contractors. The Sonoma County Alliance, a business group, has endorsed the measure as have many elected officials from both counties.
Eric Lucan, the president of SMART’s board of directors and a supporter of Measure I, says that the extension will let the agency refinance hundreds of millions of dollars in debt over a longer period of time, allowing SMART to pay about $6 million per year instead of $18 million per year as it is now. SMART will reinvest that additional $12 million into maintaining service levels and various construction projects, Lucan says.
Since beginning service in August 2017, the train has carried 1.6 million passengers, according to SMART. In December, SMART opened a station in Larkspur, allowing riders to more easily travel to San Francisco.
If Measure I doesn’t pass, SMART will have some reckoning to do. The agency’s current projected budget assumes that Measure I will pass. If it doesn’t, the agency will have to reconsider its calculations.
“If the measure does not pass, there will need to be some difficult decisions that are made,” Lucan says. “We’d most likely be looking at service cuts and reducing train trips so that we could continue to make debt service payments and manage the budget.”
Some North Bay residents have long opposed the train, arguing that it is a waste of tax-payer funds that is largely unaccountable to the public. But SMART’s opponents never had too much money to oppose the alliance supporting the train.
The “no” campaign argues that SMART is behind schedule and over-budget on many of the goals it laid out during the Measure Q campaign in 2008, including completing the construction of the railroad. Mike Arnold, an economist and longtime critic of SMART who serves as treasurer of the NotSoSMART.org campaign committee, did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and Marin County Bicycle Coalition are both taking no position on Measure I.
In separate announcements published last week, both groups stated that, although they backed Measure Q in 2008 and understand the need for additional public transportation options, they cannot support Measure I due to concerns about slow progress on a bike path running parallel to the tracks over the past ten years and a lack of a timeline for the completion of a bike path in Measure I.
Eris Weaver, the executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said she is also concerned about a lack of transparency from the agency when she asked staffers questions about progress on the bike path.
An expenditure plan passed along with Measure Q promised to guide tax proceeds towards the construction of a “bicycle/pedestrian pathway from Cloverdale in Sonoma County to Larkspur in Marin County.”
But progress on the bicycle-pedestrian path has been slow. So far, about 24 miles of the path in both counties has been completed, according to SMART.
While she understands that SMART brought in less tax revenue than expected and cuts to bike projects were necessary, Weaver says that the cuts to the bike path were disproportionate.
Ultimately, both groups decided not to support or oppose Measure I in part due to a lack of a timeline to complete the bike paths. Weaver says she and her colleagues have had trouble getting information about expenditures on the bike path from SMART.
Then, while drafting Measure I, SMART’s board of directors turned down two of the bicyclist groups suggested changes.
“Neither the text of Measure I nor the appended Expenditure Plan include a timeline or guaranteed funding for the bicycle and pedestrian pathway; and language included in the 2008 plan that required SMART to prioritize any unanticipated revenue windfalls for construction of the pathway has been removed,” the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition wrote in a post announcing their decision.
“We’re going to do everything that we can to complete that path,” Lucan said in response, arguing that refinancing SMART’s debt could allow the agency to put more money towards completing the paths, even though there isn’t a formal timeline for the completion of the paths.