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GUEST OPINION: SMART’s story is just beginning | PressDemocrat.com | The Press Democrat | Santa Rosa, CA
Monday 20 Jul 2009, 06:07
Filed under: Marin, Northwestern Pacific Railroad, Railroad, SMART, Sonoma, transit

GUEST OPINION: SMART’s story is just beginning | PressDemocrat.com | The Press Democrat | Santa Rosa, CA.

MICHAEL ALLEN and RUSS COLOMBO

Published: Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

As members of the Citizens Oversight Committee of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, we have had the opportunity over the past three months to become intimately familiar with the financial outlook for the SMART passenger train and pathway project.

What we found should not come as a surprise to anyone: The economic downturn that has affected governments and businesses and families throughout the world also has had an impact on SMART.

But while that impact is potentially significant in the future, it is neither as dire nor as imminent as some have portrayed it. In fact, for at least the short term, it should not affect the design and engineering work that SMART needs to be doing over the next two years. And, for now, it does not cause any changes in the project.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that without some changes in the economy and/or an infusion of support from the federal government, SMART will run into a funding gap in a couple of years when construction begins and large amounts of cash need to be raised through bonding.

It is frustrating for us to hear opponents of the project accuse SMART of “hiding” this gap, or of orchestrating a “charade” to keep it quiet. Our committee held eight meetings to discuss it – every one of them open to the public. The product of those meetings is the 2009 strategic plan that was adopted by the SMART Board of Directors on June 24, a public document required as part of last fall’s Measure Q. The plan is available at www.sonomamarintrain.org. SMART’s finances are an open book.

It’s important to remember, though, that we are only in the first chapter of this book. We know what the plot is: A bad economy poses difficulty to new rail and trail project. And we know the last chapter: A 70-mile passenger train and pathway offers new transportation options to North Bay. We’re just not how the chapters in between will be written.

A lot depends on conditions and events that are out of our control. What will happen to the economy and the lending markets in the next two years? If they both improve, the funding gap we’ve identified in the strategic plan will shrink. If, on the other hand, sales tax collections continue to fall and the bond markets continue to contract, all of us – SMART included – will find ourselves in even worse shape. It is only if nothing changes in the next couple of years (anyone want to bet on that scenario?) that SMART will run into the $155 million funding gap spelled out in the plan.

Regardless of what happens in the economy and the bond markets, the strategic plan directs SMART to spend these next years aggressively pursuing other funding sources to close the gap.

Because the state of California is suffering from many of the same impacts affecting SMART, much of that funding may need to come from the federal government. SMART is pursuing stimulus money, funds being made available in the new transportation bill, alternative transportation grants and other sources.

Based on the public’s desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the availability of public transportation and the new administration’s enthusiasm for expanded passenger rail, we believe this funding strategy can be productive.

We’re not telling you that SMART’s financial future is secure yet. We are telling you that it is way too early to predict how this story will unfold. There are a lot more chapters to come. And if you stick with this story, we think you’ll like how it turns out.

Michael Allen of Santa Rosa is chairman of the SMART Citizens Oversight Committee and Russ Colombo, a resident of Marin County, is president and CEO of the Bank of Marin and vice-chairman of the SMART oversight committee.

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