Dick Spotswood: Possible SMART tax extension push is a risk
By DICK SPOTSWOOD | firstname.lastname@example.org
PUBLISHED: June 11, 2019 at 10:24 am | UPDATED: June 11, 2019 at 7:12 pm
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District may place a measure on the March 2020 ballot to continue its one-quarter cent sales tax funding its operation for 20 years. Some contend that’s premature since the current sales tax doesn’t expire until 2028. SMART’s leadership favors an early vote to guarantee the district’s long-term funding.
Winning won’t be easy, especially in Marin. The rail line has always been more popular in the north as the bulk of its riders are Sonomans headed south to Marin jobs. Despite that edge, victory in Sonoma is no slam dunk. Original plans for the line had it going all the way to Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County. Due to lack of funds, it now “temporarily” terminates near Santa Rosa’s airport.
The fiscal reality was known at the time. Then-Mill Valley council member Dick Swanson – a transit professional in private life – warned a quarter-cent tax wasn’t sufficient to build all that was promised. Swanson knew a half-cent tax was required to build and operate the line. SMART’s now-gone leadership proceeded with the one-quarter cent tax as opinion polling indicated a half-cent levy would fail to achieve the needed super majority.
When the best-case scenario didn’t pan out, SMART ran short of cash. The excuse was that initiating passenger service north from Santa Rosa Airport to Cloverdale via Windsor and Healdsburg was delayed by the 2008 recession. That downturn’s effects ended long ago. Despite the current boom, there’s still insufficient North Bay sales tax revenue to fund reconstructing and operating the final 23 miles of track promised but never built. Sonomans may be reluctant to continue a tax for a project they thought was paid for 12 years ago.
SMART has two potential futures. The naysayers claim the train was always a mistake. They’ll be vindicated only when weeds grow between the rails.
The alternative may be the fate enjoyed by Golden Gate ferries. Initially derided as a boondoggle, detractors predicted tons of red ink would sink the boats. To the amazement of ferry opponents long ago silenced by its success, the only complaint now is lack of capacity to carry all wanting to sail to San Francisco.
Time will tell which alternative will prevail.
For the 2020 ballot measure to succeed, the bi-county rail district needs to prove it will finally complete its full 70-mile run, demonstrate its long-term financial house is in order and re-inspire the public about the train’s potential to provide a viable and civilized alternative to jammed freeways.
To win, the 20-year sales tax extension measure needs to be brilliantly sold. Anything less and its doomed.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that SMART backers are considering two North Bay pols, Jake Mackenzie and Cynthia Murray, to head the tax measure.
Mackenzie, a Rohnert Park council member and Metropolitan Transportation Commissioner, was a key supporter of CASA, the Committee to House the Bay Area. That’s MTC’s effort to scuttle local control of planning control in the name of building high-density housing near transit. The upshot was Mackenzie’s furious Sonoma colleagues removed him from posts on Sonoma’s Transportation Authority and SMART’s board.
Murray, a one-time Marin County supervisor, former Novato mayor and Assembly candidate, heads the big business-funded North Bay Council. She’s a non-stop proponent of high-density developments adjacent to ferry terminals, bus stops and rail stations.
The merits of high-density transit-adjacent housing aside, having even one co-chair identified with a politically unpopular theory will prevent SMART from achieving a majority vote much less the needed two-thirds super-majority approval.
If the transit agency is to have a shot with voters, it needs to mount a campaign with fresh vision and solid guarantees of SMART’s long-term mobility benefits to Marinites and Sonomans.