North Bay Voice: Disastrous SMART deserves a no vote on Measure I

Marin Independent Journal | February 22, 2020

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As a fourth generation Sonoma County resident and family business owner, I have deep roots in the North Bay community. What happens here and the direction it takes is of intense concern to me.

With the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit tax measure coming up on the March ballot, I set out to investigate the facts.

From inception, SMART has been resistant to constructive measures. Following a 2010 Marin Civil Grand Jury report, SMART disagreed with 13 findings and rejected seven of eight recommendations designed to improve the financial oversight and communication with the public. Over the next nine years, SMART’s poor, unchecked performance continued. Measure I allows SMART to spend billions more in tax revenue without any budget oversight.

In 2008, Measure Q passed with promises to the public of rail service that included 71 miles of train tracks and 71 miles of bike path beginning in 2014. Eleven years later, SMART has only completed 45 miles of rail and 8.5 miles of the bike path, and now says it does not have the funds to finish. Measure I would extend the tax another 30 years, to 2059. This equates to asking the public for $2.4 billion dollars in additional taxes, with none of those funds allocated towards constructing rail north of Windsor nor completing the promised bike path.

SMART data shows less than one-eighth of 1% of the intended public uses SMART. In comparison, the percentage of the public riding BART is 30 times higher and eight times higher for Golden Gate Transit. The argument that SMART is in its infancy and will miraculously start making sense from a massive influx of new riders is not supported by any data. BART increased ridership by 204% in its second year, and another 99% more in its third year. SMART ridership actually decreased in its second year.

SMART claims that use of its diesel trains lowers greenhouse gas emissions. I found only one serious examination of this question — a recent analysis done by Richard Harkness, a local transportation and greenhouse gas expert with a Ph.D. in urban systems planning. His study shows that SMART’s trains are emitting more carbon dioxide than if all SMART’s riders took cars and Golden Gate Transit buses instead.

Finally, SMART is a financial disaster and its projections are a hoax. The current tax runs through 2029, and subsidizes 90% of SMART’s operating expenses, making SMART one of the worst performing trains in our country.

For every round trip, taxpayers are subsidizing $100 of the cost, and for every two SMART riders, there are 1,000 non-riders paying for 90% of the cost. According to SMART’s own data, the average rider on SMART has an annual income of $97,000. Their expenditure plan, published with the 2008 tax measure, estimated the annual operating cost to be $17.1 million. In reality, for 2020 the operating cost for just the 45-mile train will be $41.3 million and grow 3% per year thereafter. This means the average annual cost to operate the train over the next 40 years will be $85 million per year — 600% of the original estimate. Asking taxpayers for an additional $2.4 billion for a glamour project is egregious.

I feel fortunate to live, work and raise my family in this beautiful region. We have dire needs in this community that beg immediate attention, action and funds. There is a limit to how many tax measures can be supported. Join me in a clear message to those who would continue this waste of taxpayer money and vote no on Measure I.

Molly Flater is chief operating officer of Gallaher Homes and the primary contributor to the Measure I opposition.