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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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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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Why Bay Area transit is broken, and who is trying to fix it

Erin Baldassari, MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL

Behind the push for a more regional, seamless integrated transit network.

It happens two to three times a week, Alex Rivkin says.

His Muni train runs a few minutes late, pulling up to the 4th and King Street station in San Francisco just in time for Rivkin to run frantically toward his departing Caltrain, only to see it pull away before he gets there.

Or vice versa: He’s standing on a Muni platform and, along with two dozen other people, pounding on a Muni train stopped at a red light that won’t open its doors to the travelers who just sprinted from the Caltrain station.

“It’s sadistic and cold-blooded,” said the frustrated San Francisco resident, who uses the two services, along with a city-provided shuttle in Mountain View, to get to his job at a South Bay pharmaceutical company and back home. “There is a lack of accountability for customer service, and it feels like these agencies just don’t care.”

He added, “I wish they would just talk to each other.”

Rivkin is not the only one who wants to see more cooperation and coordination among train, bus and ferry operators. At a time when regional leaders are considering asking taxpayers to back a proposed “mega-measure,” a $100 billion or more regional transportation sales tax, transit advocates say it’s more imperative than ever for the Bay Area’s more than two dozen transit agencies to work together and put customers first.

Read more at https://www.marinij.com/2019/09/22/why-bay-area-transit-is-broken-and-who-is-working-to-fix-it/

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Greta Thunberg’s train journey through Europe highlights no-fly movement

Richard Orange, THE GUARDIAN

When Greta Thunberg stepped on to the platform at Stockholm Central station on Thursday after completing her European tour to raise awareness of climate change, an unassuming 69-year-old who runs a tiny travel firm was there to greet her.

Ivar Karlsson has found his business in the spotlight as appetite grows for alternatives to flying. It was Karlsson, whose company specialises in rail-only holidays, that Greta and her father contacted to book their trip, which took in stops in Strasbourg, Rome, London before heading back to Sweden.

The success of Sweden’s “flygskam”, or “flight-shame”, movement means that Karlsson struggles to respond to calls or emails from less high-profile customers than Greta. He said he had been working 16-hour days, nearly seven days a week, trying to meet the surge in demand, with bookings at his Centralens Resebutik agency increasing eightfold this January compared with two years ago.

“We were already stretched to a limit last year and now we’ve doubled that,” said Karlsson, who is based in the city of Kalmar. “If we had greater resources, then we could have done much more. The demand and interest is much, much bigger than we can cope with.”

Karlsson, his co-owner Maria Petersson, and their six permanent staff, have been unable to answer the volume of calls and emails coming in, leading to much grumbling on the Tågsemester (train holidays) Facebook group.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/26/greta-thunberg-train-journey-through-europe-flygskam-no-fly

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SMART’s review of ticket prices could come next month — or next year

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

“We need to look at how we’re going to make our train public transit for everybody, because I think it is not affordable for some people,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has served on the SMART board for nine years. “We’re seeing that our numbers are still primarily white men working at good paying jobs who can afford the fares. I do want to talk about diversity in terms of ridership and what we’re doing to achieve that.”

The North Bay’s commuter rail service has been in operation for a year and a half, with a stable ridership, slightly higher-than-expected fare revenues, and work continuing on extension of the line to its southern terminus in Larkspur.

But a key dilemma remains unaddressed: How to diversify its passenger base beyond the current set of predominantly white, well-off riders?

Some board members of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency last year publicly speculated on whether system’s pricing structure was impacting the makeup of riders, serving as a detractor for low-income commuters.

The SMART board had previously committed to re-evaluating the fare structure after the first year of operations. But now 18 months since it began service, the agency has yet to bring the matter forward for a public discussion.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, has been noncommittal this year and last on when exactly that step would come.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9326457-181/smarts-review-of-ticket-prices

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SMART to begin work on extension of commuter rail to Windsor

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board of directors Wednesday authorized spending $24 million to launch the next, highly anticipated phase of railwork needed to extend commuter train service north to Windsor.

The unanimous board decision represents a major expansion geared toward fulfilling the promise made in 2008, when voters approved a two-county, 70-mile line stretching from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

The SMART board approved the spending with two 12-0 votes, setting in motion rail safety upgrades and design work needed to expand the rail line north by 3 miles from the current northbound terminal near the Sonoma County Airport.

The work is set to begin this fall, with heavy construction in 2020 and system testing in 2021. Agency officials said SMART could start serving Windsor, with a population of 27,000, by late 2021 or early 2022.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8754419-181/smart-to-begin-work-on

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Op-Ed: Thinking big, really big, about the Bay Area

Joe Matthews, CONNECTING CALIFORNIA

Welcome to the Bay Area, Merced!

And welcome as well to Modesto, Sacramento and Yuba City. Looking south, you’re invited, too, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Salinas. And while you’re almost in another state, don’t worry, Tahoe City, the Bay waters are warm.

This expanded notion of the Bay Area’s reach isn’t a joke. It reflects the biggest thinking about California’s future. If you’re in a smaller Northern California region that can’t compete with the advanced grandeur of the Bay Area, why not join forces with the Bay Area instead?

The Bay Area would benefit too. It is one of four Northern California regions — along with the greater Sacramento area, the northern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast triumvirate of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties — that struggle with severe challenges in housing, land use, jobs, transportation, education and the environment. Since such problems cross regional boundaries, shouldn’t the regions address them together as one giant region?

The Northern California megaregion — a concept developed by a think tank, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute — includes 12 million people and 21 counties, extending from Wine Country to the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley and from the Pacific to the Nevada border.

The places of the megaregion are integrating as people search a wider geography for jobs, housing and places to expand their businesses. The trouble is that this growth is imbalanced. The megaregion is home to the mega-rich in San Francisco and poor cities like Stockton, Salinas and Vallejo. As high housing prices push people out of the Bay Area, they head to the rest of the megaregion, only to find they are too far away from their jobs and schools. The results: brutal traffic that produces more greenhouse gases and longer commutes.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/8575490-181/mathews-thinking-big-really-big