About two dozen transportation advocates — mostly bike fans — offered some late-night advice to the Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) commissioners Thursday night as the board contemplates pitching in to help launch a controversial passenger rail effort in Marin and Sonoma counties.
TAM Chairman and Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey made it clear that no decision would be made at the meeting, but the 11 commissioners were eager for public feedback in an effort to be as transparent as possible with the decision whether or not to silver-platter $8 million to the cash-strapped Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) authority.
Some said do it — as long as part of the money is earmarked for the bicycle-pedestrian pathway that was drawn up to run alongside the train tracks. Those attendees said that anything to reduce greenhouse gases, encourage physical activity and get cars off Highway 101 was worth the expense.
Others disagreed and said that SMART is massive mistake, that the construction funds will never materialize, that voters will never get what they were promised, that no one will ride it if it’s built and that Marin is having to pay way more than Sonoma County.
TAM is expected to make its final decision at its June 23 meeting, 10 days after it is reviewed by the body’s executive committee.
Diane Steinhauser, TAM’s executive director, said her organization has worked closely with SMART for more than a year at funding opportunities, and “doors that may have been open to them then are not available anymore. We’ve taken advantage of those kinds of doors for projects we’ve delivered in Marin, but they’re not available to SMART. State and federal funding is very grim at this point.”
Staff from TAM, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently pow-wowed to figure out how each agency could push SMART along the tracks as it faces a fiscal shortfall of more than $100 million.
Using a complicated formula that factored in sales tax contributions, the costs of start-up construction and projected ridership, each agency was recommended with a contribution to the cause by its staff members. For TAM, the figure came out to $8 million. The figure was $3 million for Sonoma County Transportation Authority and $10 million for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
“This will close the gap and allow SMART to proceed on solid footing,” Steinhauser said.
Proponents of the $8 million donation included Rick Brown, a Petaluma resident and solar business owner at Larkspur Landing. He said his five employees all live in San Francisco and come over on the ferry, often with their bikes.
“They have said that when they’re ready to settle down, they look forward to the day when they live in Marin or Sonoma county and they can switch from the ferry to SMART,” he said. “If you want to attract green, clean jobs and the professionals who work in those roles, SMART is a key piece. No question the most important recruiting tool for me is the potential of SMART rail and the bike path.”
Others urging the TAM board to approve the funding included representatives of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.
“One of TAM’s conditions should be to protect the pathway funding that SMART has promised,” said MCBC’s Deb Hubsmith. “We don’t want it to be a contingency to the train.”
Novato economist Mike Arnold of throwing money at a rail system that he predicts is doomed to fail. He added that TAM would be breaking a promise to the voters by contributing to the rail plan.
“We all took TAM’s word when it said ‘We will not use our funding for SMART,’” he said.
The creativity of TAM’s fiscal team has been put to the test to prop up SMART. Its staff recommended the redirection of the State Local Partnership Program sales-tax revenue that would have gone to major road projects and figured SMART was eligible to receive $6.5 million from that move.
“If we’re being asked to spend $8 million, does this meet the intent of what was promised us by SMART, and are we really going to get the bang for the buck when we’re already dealing with other major transportation issues in our county?” asked commissioner Susan Adams.
SMART expected to gain about $890 million in taxpayer revenue over 20 years, gleaned from a quarter-cent sales tax increased approved by voters in both counties in 2008. But in November 2010 the board announced that it didn’t anticipate having enough money to build the entire rail line.
Capital costs initially were expected to run $450 million for the train and $91 million for a multi-use path alongside the tracks for the 70 miles between Cloverdale and Larkspur. But the board chose to focus on a first segment between downtown Santa Rosa and the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, and said a shortfall of $45 million could be made up by deferring the construction of five stations and a portion of the multiuse path.
Mark Bell of Fairfax called the train project “a joke” and said SMART is just stealing more money from taxpayers to make up for their failed funding predictions.
“It seems like Bernie Madoff is doing their accounting for them,” he said.