Capdiamont\’s Weblog

Dick Spotswood: SMART should consider separate votes this time
Sunday 25 Nov 2007, 09:14
Filed under: Railroad, SMART

NEXT NOVEMBER, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district again will aim for passage of a quarter-cent sales tax hike to pay for construction and operation of a North Bay rail commuter line.Before going forward, SMART needs to examine one additional alternative: allow Marin and Sonoma to vote separately on the issue. If Sonoma County says “yes,” a Sonoma-centered rail commuter service would be built even if Marin again says “no.”

The traditional view is that to be viable, North Bay commuter rail must include Marin and Sonoma. The reality is that even if Marin rejects the train, a Sonoma-centered starter system including a short leg to Novato makes sense.

With Highway 101 jammed, commuter rail in the 70-mile Cloverdale to Larkspur Ferry corridor has great appeal. The public owns the tracks of the temporarily closed Northwestern Pacific Railroad. A modern environmentally sensitive biodiesel powered rail line could provide a long-desired alternative to the freeway.

SMART was submitted to North Bay voters in November 2006. While garnering 65.3 percent of the vote in the two-county district, it narrowly missed the two-thirds super majority required for passage.

Since the notion of reviving rail passenger service in Marin and Sonoma arose in the 1980s, there was always one big question. Would rail service generate sufficient ridership to justify its cost and persuade the public to vote needed funds for construction and operation? That argument is resolved in Sonoma County, where an amazing 70.1 percent of voters supported SMART last year.

There’s a pro-SMART consensus in Sonoma. Not so in Marin, where the train remains contentious despite tallying 57.5 percent last year. Unless Marin develops a similar consensus, Sonomans are held hostage to a minority of nay-saying Marin voters.

The truth is that a Sonoma-centered first phase Cloverdale to Petaluma or Novato shuttle will work and is a legitimate fallback strategy. It addresses the possibility that the train will succeed in Sonoma while again failing in Marin.

Marinites tend to look at Sonoma in a nostalgic haze. To some, it’s simply bucolic farmland with great wine. Sure, Santa Rosa is a decent-sized burg, but Sonoma County is still “the country.” That outdated view has little to do with the 21st century. Sonoma County now has 465,000 residents – nearly twice Marin’s population. By 2025, its population will approach 600,000, most of whom will live and work along the Highway101-NWP Railroad corridor.

During the same period, Marin will grow from 250,000 to just 275,000. That’s consistent with Sonoma’s pro-growth agenda and Marin’s anti-growth tradition. “Rural” Sonoma will be in the same population range as Milwaukee or Boston and will be larger than Denver or Portland, excluding their suburbs. Santa Rosa, with 158,000 residents, is now only slightly smaller than Salt Lake City. Sonoma County is big enough to have its own stand-alone rail line if Marin opts out.

Currently, Sonoma’s commute is local with 81.9 percent of home-to-work trips entirely within the county. Only 9 percent of Sonomans travel to Marin, with a mere 3 percent ending up in San Francisco’s Financial District. Sonoma County’s mobility needs are huge and geographically connected, two criteria for any successful transit operation.

SMART’s ridership projections demonstrate the logic of a potentially successful Sonoma-centered system. In the southbound morning rush, 82.7 percent of rail passengers will board SMART in Sonoma County and 70.6 percent will disembark at or before Petaluma. Terminating the train in Petaluma isn’t ideal, but it accomplishes much for Sonoma at lower costs with greater political certainty.

Even better, if Marin leverages additional funds from the state, a short eight-mile extension could bring commuter rail to northern Novato. There, buses could meet trains to carry Sonomans bound for jobs in Novato and Central Marin.

If Sonoma votes “yes” while Marin votes “no,” a Sonoma County-centered passenger rail line would be financed with a quarter-cent sales tax levied only in Sonoma.

Ideally, both Marin and Sonoma voters approve a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for two-county rail public transit. If each county votes separately, at least Sonoma has a good chance to for traffic relief along with viable commuter rail.

Of course, if Marinites again fail to muster two-thirds approval for SMART, they will still be stuck with Highway 101 gridlock and no transit alternative. As the old adage says, “You get what you pay for.”

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