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Gallaher Homes executive spends $500,000 to derail SMART sales tax citing broken promises

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A stunning infusion of money from an unexpected source has rocked SMART’s campaign to renew the sales tax that subsidizes the commuter rail line running between Sonoma and Marin counties.

Molly Gallaher Flater, daughter of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher, contributed more than $500,000 to defeat Measure I — and suggested she would be willing to double the amount to kill the March sales-tax extension the rail agency projects would raise nearly $2.4 billion over 30 years to operate and expand service.

“If I end up spending $1 million to save our community taxpayers from a $2.4 billion mistake then I feel it is worth every penny,” Flater said in a written statement Thursday.

Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist and longtime critic of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, said he was approached by Gallaher in October about funding a campaign against the tax measure, and met his daughter for the first time this week. When he learned the size of Flater’s donation, his reaction was astonishment.

“How’s falling out of my tree? Are you kidding me?” Arnold said Thursday. “I’d never heard of the Gallahers. They’re running the campaign, I’m just the technical advisor.”

The financial contribution blindsided SMART officials and members of the Yes on Measure I campaign. They expressed dismay Thursday at the prospect a single donor could jeopardize the future of the public transit system’s primary revenue stream for decades to come.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10595957-181/wealthy-donor-spends-500k-to

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SMART board highlights gains in commuter ridership while contesting overall dip in second year

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART board members on Wednesday sharply defended the North Bay rail line’s passenger numbers, touting gains in weekday ridership they said reflected the 28-month-old system’s growing popularity. At the same time, they rejected a recent analysis of passenger records by The Press Democrat that revealed overall ridership decreased in SMART’s second year.

The meeting marked the first time the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board met to publicly discuss detailed passenger data, including daily and weekly ridership, which had never before been disclosed by SMART until two weeks ago. The records were released after agency officials denied they kept such figures, which The Press Democrat sought for months to help evaluate the rail system’s use as SMART pitches an early sales-tax renewal to voters in March.

Agency staff presented an analysis that showed SMART’s ridership has only increased based on reviews of calendar and fiscal years. The hourlong presentation underscored the rise in weekday ridership — capturing the commuters SMART was launched to serve.

“I’m sort of tired of arguing over numbers. Anybody can slice and dice them any way they want,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a two-time SMART board chairwoman. “The story here is that there’s been an upward trend in weekdays year over year in the 2½ years that we’ve been in service. That’s the story.”

The Press Democrat analysis showed for the first time that SMART ridership declined 2.2% in its second year of operations, which ended last August. The decrease was driven by lagging weekend use, which fell 30% from the first year, and continues to drop in the first three months of the agency’s third year of service.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10559318-181/smart-board-highlights-gains-in

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SMART ridership declined in 2nd year, but weekday use growing, newly obtained records show

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Ridership on the SMART train dropped 2.2% in its second year of service, but is slowly starting to recover, according to newly disclosed passenger data that provides unprecedented detail about use of the region’s $600 million commuter rail system.

Daily ridership figures show that just over 706,000 passengers rode Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in its second year of operations, or 15,600 fewer than its inaugural year that began in summer 2017.

The data was obtained by The Press Democrat under the California Public Records Act after SMART repeatedly refused to release the figures, claiming the agency did not break out daily or weekly passenger totals commonly reported by other transit systems.

The decline in ridership during the second year of service stemmed from a 30% drop in weekend ridership. That slide has continued in the first three months of its third year, when weekend ridership fell another 7.4%, a Press Democrat analysis found.

However, the data shows that SMART is building ridership on weekdays, making progress toward one of its main objectives — providing an alternative for commuters driving to work on Highway 101. Weekday ridership rose 4.2% in the second year and was up another 4.2% in the first three months of the third year.

Until now, SMART has not provided any data to the public or its governing board showing any declines in ridership. SMART has only announced the total number of passengers who have boarded its trains since service started Aug. 25, 2017, a figure that increases every month and exceeded 1.6 million riders through November.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10518434-181/smart-ridership-declined-in-2nd

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SMART marks opening of new $55 million Larkspur station

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Leaders and supporters of the North Bay’s commuter rail line cheered the grand opening Friday of SMART’s new southern terminal in Larkspur, marking what they said would be the next chapter linking the train with ferry service to San Francisco.

They cut a ceremonial ribbon to commemorate completion of the $55.4 million, 2.1-mile rail extension leading from San Rafael, hailing it as a transportation solution for generations to come.

“We’re here to celebrate the progress that we’re making for those in Marin and Sonoma, not only for ourselves, but certainly for our children and our grandchildren,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, chairman of the SMART board. “It also is the next step in a ‘promise’ that was made some number of years ago to the community, and this is one more step in satisfying that. We’re not giving up on those commitments that were made by SMART, and this is evidence of that.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10445374-181/smart-marks-opening-of-new

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SMART to begin train service to new Larkspur and Novato stations in mid-December

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

SMART plans to launch service to Larkspur, the rail system’s gateway to San Francisco via the nearby ferry, by mid- December after finishing testing on the extension, helping set the stage for an expanded schedule that agency officials branded “a game changer.”

The 2-mile extension is Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s first completed expansion since it began operating in 2017 on 43  miles of existing track from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts. Completion is a watershed moment for the taxpayer-supported transit system voters approved in 2008. Design, construction and planning service took about 2½ years for the $55.4 million project that includes an accompanying bicycle and pedestrian pathway adjacent to the tracks that is expected to be finished by the end of next year.

The timing of the station’s opening next month and expansion of train service the first week of January is not lost on officials with SMART, who again seek voter support in March for renewal of the sales tax that funds the 2-year-old passenger rail system. Without extension of the commuter rail agency’s primary funding source about a decade early, staff has warned of a need to burn through financial reserves or make deep cuts to SMART’s workforce and service over the next three years.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10340941-181/smart-to-begin-train-service?ref=moststory

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Sonoma County supervisors back study of Fulton Road SMART station

Tyler Silvy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday capped a month of speculation about behind-the-scenes jockeying over a third Santa Rosa-area SMART station, voting 4-1 to fund a study of a new stop in north Santa Rosa.

The discussion had initially pit supervisors Lynda Hopkins and James Gore against Supervisor Shirlee Zane and board Chairman David Rabbitt, as Hopkins and Gore favored a Fulton Road location in north Santa Rosa and Zane favored a station in southwest Santa Rosa, near Roseland or Moorland Avenue. Rabbitt wanted to know where the $11 million to build such a station would ever come from before agreeing to study it.

In the end, Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents parts of eastern Santa Rosa and the entire Sonoma Valley, was the lone board member to vote against the $50,000 study of the Fulton site.

Supervisors began the discussion with an attempt to dispel reports they had been squabbling about the location. But they ended with a threat from Gorin that Sonoma Valley likely wouldn’t support tax renewal for SMART because it doesn’t directly serve her constituents. Hopkins chimed in that deliberations reflected the board’s need for a therapy dog.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10151507-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-back-study

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State rail regulators to decide fate of Santa Rosa’s Jennings Avenue SMART crossing

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State rail regulators in San Francisco are set to vote Thursday morning on Santa Rosa’s request to restore a ground-level pedestrian and bicycle pathway over the railroad tracks at Jennings Avenue.

The city has sought the return of the historic east-west crossing in northwestern Santa Rosa since receiving the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval to build it in September 2016. It is seeking a two-year extension to work out a deal for it with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which now owns the rail right of way. A legal arbitrator for the state agency last month recommended granting the request to construct the footpath through September 2021, stating that the city’s plan for added enhancements met public safety requirements.

SMART, the North Bay’s commuter rail agency, opposes a ground-level crossing at Jennings Avenue, citing ongoing safety concerns.

In 2015, two years before the launch of service, SMART fenced off the pathway, which dates to at least the early 20th century.

SMART previously supported the city’s plan to build an overcrossing at the location, submitting a letter of support as part of a regional transportation grant application for $8 million toward the $9 million project. Santa Rosa ultimately reverted back to a ground-level crossing, noting the access challenges for disabled people and the overcrossing’s general incompatibility with the neighborhood. It returned the grant funding.

SMART submitted [a] letter in support of the city’s updated plans before reversing course once passenger service started. SMART did not return a request for comment Monday about the Public Utilities Commission’s upcoming vote on the crossing. If approved Thursday, the two-year extension would place the ball back in the court of SMART and the largest city along its rail line, leaving the two entities to come to an agreement over the long-disputed issue.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10147543-181/state-rail-regulators-to-decide?sba=AAS

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Sonoma County supervisors at odds over location of proposed 3rd Santa Rosa SMART station

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County supervisors are jostling behind the scenes on the location of a possible third SMART station in Santa Rosa or on its outskirts, with two members of the five-person board planning to ask for the money to study a site in Fulton at a county meeting next month.

Supervisors James Gore and Lynda Hopkins are pressing for the Fulton location and have both recently met with Farhad Mansourian, general manager of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, about a plan that would see the county pay for a feasibility study for the proposed station near Fulton and River roads, just north of city limits.

But Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year member of the SMART board of directors, would prefer to see a potential third station for the city’s 175,000 people in the southwestern area of Santa Rosa, near Roseland. That part of town has a large Latino population and could benefit from the increased access to public transit, she said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10007629-181/sonoma-county-supervisors-at-odds?sba=AAS

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SMART board laying groundwork for sales-tax renewal amid looming financial crisis

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The daunting financial challenges disclosed last week by the North Bay’s commuter rail system have only increased the urgency within SMART to convince voters to renew a sales tax that funds the 2-year-old train line and underpins its future.

SMART officials are beginning to craft the talking points for a campaign to persuade voters that, despite past rail agency missteps, they should extend the agency’s tax funding another two or three decades, allowing it to more readily refinance its mounting debt costs.

To be successful, members of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board say, the campaign must show voters how the system has improved the quality of life across the region, beyond its 1.4 million riders to date, and enhanced the economies of the two counties it serves.

“I think it’s a reasonable ask,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a nine-year board member. “We’re asking to extend a sales tax in order to assure that we’re here and healthy for the next 30 years, and can continue to expand and be convenient for riders. That’s the message.”

To renew the tax, however, SMART also must overcome its faults and earn the trust of two-thirds of the voters in Sonoma and Marin counties. Revenues have fallen far short of initial projections, construction costs have doubled, and buildout of the rail line and parallel bike path is far behind the original schedule.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9881990-181/smart-board-laying-groundwork-for

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SMART says it faces multimillion-dollar deficits without sales-tax renewal

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail system could face crippling multimillion-dollar deficits within three years if voters in Sonoma and Marin counties don’t pass a proposed sales-tax extension in March, SMART officials revealed for the first time Wednesday.

Starting in 2022, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit would need to slash at least $9 million annually — about a seventh of its operating expenses — resulting in cuts to service and SMART’s workforce if the 12-member board opts not to seek early renewal of the tax next year, or if the extension is put to voters and they reject it, officials said.

The agency’s financial forecast showed operating expenses climbing from $58 million this fiscal year to about $63 million two years from now, with tax and fare revenues not expected to keep pace. The rise is driven mostly by escalating payments on debt accrued in SMART’s buildout, as well as rising labor, fuel and maintenance costs.

“We just need to call a spade a spade as we see it today,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told the board. “Doing nothing is not an option and pretty bad for everybody. We’re being straightforward. We don’t want to mislead the members of the public. We want to tell them what the pains are, what the chokeholds are and what our options are.”

The newly unveiled forecast marked the first public acknowledgment by SMART officials that the 2-year-old line already faces a potentially deepening near-term shortfall in its budget. The projections did not account for the possibility of a recession, which would carve an even larger hole into the system’s budget. More than 70% of SMART’s spending on operations is supported by the quarter-cent sales tax.

It isn’t set to expire for another decade, but SMART officials say early renewal would allow them to restructure and reduce debt payments, which are now set to rise to $16 million next year and $18 million by 2022.

Without the tax renewal and financial adjustments it would support, SMART would be forced to cut commuter service in half, according to the agency’s finance chief, effectively sidelining 18 of the 36 train trips. Dozens of jobs could be also eliminated from the workforce of about 200, officials signaled.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9874597-181/smart-says-it-faces-multimillion