SMART train

KEEP MOVING — The SMART train arrives at the Larkspur station.

But concerns about spending, accountability persist

Measure I will be appearing on the March 3 ballot in Sonoma County, and the measure has already created a fierce battleground, with various local heavyweights throwing their checkbooks behind both the “for” and “against” campaigns. Both sides offer a variety of statistics to support their views, but getting to the heart of the matter, and the facts of what the measure does — and doesn’t — say is key to voters making their decision. 

Measure I asks voters whether the existing quarter-cent sales tax for SMART should be extended for an additional 30 years through March 31, 2059. If approved, Measure I would provide approximately $40 million annually, according to the county counsels’ impartial analysis published in the voter guide.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is a rail district created by the state legislature in 2003 to “evaluate, plan and implement passenger rail service in Sonoma and Marin counties.” 

In 2008, voters approved Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax to fund construction and operation of a passenger rail service and a bicycle/pedestrian pathway along a 70-mile section of rail corridor between Larkspur Landing to the south and Cloverdale to the north. 

The first phase of the system, a 43-mile segment between northern Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael, began service on Aug. 25, 2017. The southern two miles of the line was completed to Larkspur with service commencing on Dec. 14, 2019. Measure Q is currently set to expire in 2029. 

Why extend now?

“Bond prices are at their lowest rate in 10 years now,” said Deborah Fudge, Windsor Town Council member and SMART board member, responding to questions about why SMART was putting this measure forward now, nine years before the current measure expires. 

Since Measure I continues a special purpose tax, monies collected will be placed in a special fund and may be spent only for the purposes set forth in the expenditure plan stated in the full text of the measure. 

The principal features of the expenditure plan include providing for the ongoing operation, maintenance and financing of the current system; refinancing existing debt service; enhancing and prioritizing safety, education and community outreach programs; and funding capital projects that will provide for and increase the existing level of service, operation and future expansion of both the passenger and freight rail train system and ancillary bicycle/pedestrian pathways in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The first section — ongoing operation, maintenance and financing of the current system — includes maintenance for 48 miles of commuter rail with stations, four Park & Ride lots, 25 miles of pathways, 68 public crossings, 27 bridges, two tunnels, the Rail Operation Center and maintenance facilities on Airport Boulevard and telecommunications, fiber optics and Wi-Fi equipment. 

Refinancing the existing debt service will allow SMART to refinance the payments on the current debt from Measure Q to free up $12 million in revenue annually by reducing debt payments from $18 million to $6 million, according to the text of the measure. 

The safety and community outreach piece will be both programmatic and practical. There will be safety, education and suicide prevention programs, and also increased safety technology at crossings. 

Will this help the train get to Healdsburg and Cloverdale? 

According to the text of the measure, “the passage of a sales tax extension without increasing the rate enables SMART the ability to fund the operational expenses of Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale extensions — currently estimated to be $600,000, $1.5 (million)and $3.2 (million) respectively.” 

Net revenue from ridership alone would not provide enough funds for the construction of a Healdsburg and Cloverdale rail extension, which is one of the reasons why SMART is asking voters to pass the quarter-cent sales tax extension.

While the tax from Measure I would also not be enough to fund rail extensions to north county, it would be able to fund operational costs for the Healdsburg and Cloverdale lines.

“From fiscal year 2023 forward, net revenue and fund balance remains positive through the end of tax,” according to SMART revenue projections from SMART’s Chief Financial Officer Erin McGrath. McGrath presented the numbers during an Aug. 7, 2019, SMART board meeting, where board members discussed the possibility of the tax extension. 

Net revenue is estimated at $3.4 million in 2023 and is forecasted to grow annually thereafter. This increased revenue could be used to fund additional operating costs related to Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

“It would provide room for operations if there were capital money available from some other source,” said Sarah Hollenbeck, a financial advisor for SMART. 

In other words, if SMART demonstrates that they have sufficient funds for operations, then it becomes more likely that they could get grants to build out the extensions, according to Fudge.

SMART Programming and Grants Manager Joanne Parker said they are already looking into a few state grants for the Healdsburg memorial bridge.

If the 30-year tax extension is not approved by voters, then SMART will have to make up to $9 million in cuts as well as cuts in service, McGrath explained during the Aug. 7 meeting.

Implementation guidelines

Measure I’s implemen-tation guidelines include a Citizens Oversight Committee composed of citizens from the district, annual independent financial audits and strategic plan updates every five years. 

The tax will be administered by the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.

The guidelines also allow  SMART to re-issue or restructure revenue bonds, pursuant to Public Utilities Code section 105220, to advance or expedite the commencement and delivery of passenger train service, the bicycle/pedestrian pathway and related train transit improvements. 

The measure states that, “when seeking capital grants pursuing rail and pathway construction, SMART’s objective is to concurrently build rail and pathway when feasible.” 

“During annual budget reviews, based on revenue status at that time, the board of directors will provide direction to staff for upcoming priorities; and that for cities that train service was planned and currently not provided (Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale), following that passage of Measure I, $1 million dollars will be allocated for pilot programs, such as partnerships with public and private transportation providers to serve these SMART stations or provide for additional ridership incentives. These specific pilot programs are subject to SMART’s board of directors’ approval.”

Ridership

So why is ridership an important part of the discussion?

“Ridership is part of the discussion (of Measure I) because it gives you an idea of the number of people using the system,” said SMART spokeswoman Julia Gonzalez.

Ridership reports have fluctuated in the few years that SMART has been operating and have been the subject of much debate during the Measure I campaign.

Ridership numbers are garnered from three different sources, according to Gonzalez. These sources include on board manual counts, paid fare reports from Clipper Cards and the SMART mobile app and third-party contracted ridership surveys.

On board counts are able to capture all riders including those on free fare days, kids under the age of 5, promotional rides, passengers who do not “tag on” (touching your Clipper Card to the pay station at the platform when you embark and disembark to pay for the distance traveled) or “tag off” at stations and those with bikes and wheelchairs.

Gonzalez said there are times when a conductor may not be able to capture data due to other conductor responsibilities. Paid fair reports do capture Clipper Card and app users, but may not reflect all Clipper and app users since some may not tag on or off.

Another reason pinning down numbers can be tricky, is that ridership timeframes can be calculated quite differently. In other words, a year is not a year. SMART must report numbers from each fiscal year (which runs July 1 to June 30), each calendar year (which runs January to December) and each year from start of service (so Aug. 25 to Aug. 24). In addition, the 2017 numbers for the fiscal and calendar years will be skewed because service did not start until August. 

According to SMART ridership data from their Jan. 8 report, average weekday ridership for the first fiscal year (FY) 2017 to 2018 (July 1 to June 30) amounts to 2,256. The average weekday ridership for the second fiscal year, 2018, amounts to 2,420.The average weekday ridership for the first calendar year, 2017, amounts to 2,266. The second calendar year, 2018, amounts to 2,357. The average weekday ridership for the first year at the start of service in 2017 (Aug. 25 to Aug. 24) is 2,301. The second year, 2018, is 2,407. 

While there is impartial data for the third year of operation, 2019, there is data from December 2019 and January 2020.

“Given the circumstances, the ridership numbers aren’t too surprising,” said Kevin Fang, an assistant professor at Sonoma State University in the geography, environment and planning department. Fang studies the geography of cities, community planning and sustainable transportation.

Fang explained that the circumstances that can affect ridership include the frequency of train service, and land use, meaning where stations are located and if they are near housing or hubs of employment.

He said the ridership numbers seem to be line when you look at factors like the infancy of the system and the amount of trains it runs, to the locations of the stations, many of which are not necessarily within walking distance of housing or areas of employment.

According to data from a Feb. 5 SMART report, the average weekday ridership for December 2019 was 2,391, a 9% increase from December 2018, which saw an average of 2,197.

Average weekend ridership for December 2019 was 814. In December 2018 it was 741.

January saw the opening of two new stations — Larkspur Landing and Downtown Novato — and changes in the frequency of service.

The transit system added four weekday trips, upping the total to 38. There are trains coming every 32 minutes in each direction on weekday commutes.

Preliminary data from January 2020 shows that the average weekday ridership for that month was 2,847. The average for 2019 was 2,289.

Average weekend ridership did see a decline if you look at the preliminary fiscal data from the first six months of the FY 2019 and the first six months of FY 2020 (the total does not reflect trends from new services).

The average weekend/ holiday ridership for the first six months of FY 2019 was 1,002, and the average weekend/holiday ridership for the first six months of FY 2020 was only 981.

What do the numbers mean?

Both Gonzalez and Fang said the numbers show a steady increase in weekday ridership, but a decline in weekend ridership.

“There are three trends: ridership is up; weekend ridership is a dip and there is a significant northbound commute,” Gonzalez said. “Ridership is doing well. Considering all that has happened, with the Tubbs Fire and the flood in 2019, all the trains are running at 70 to 80% capacity and that is pretty impressive.”

Fang said the frequency of trains definitely affects ridership. 

Two cars can hold 158 people. He said if trains ran more frequently and if there were more cars, then capacity numbers would most likely go down.

In terms of the weekend ridership dip, Fang said the Larkspur landing station could change those numbers if more people use the system for leisure trips and not just for commuting.

“Perhaps it could shift the tide on weekend decline and perhaps open travelers to more destinations (in the Bay Area and wine country),” Fang said.

To view the most recent ridership reports, visit sonomamarintrain.org/RidershipReports

The argument against

Measure I is facing significant opposition led by Ken Churchill of New Sonoma, an anti-taxation group. Listed concerns include the low ridership numbers (requiring that each rider is “subsidized” by taxpayers), the additional debt burden of the 30-year extension, concerns over the lack of financial oversight and transparency and the fact that the line is not completed and that SMART does not appear to have the funds to complete it. 

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