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"Critics say they warned of SMART's financing problems"

From an article on the website:


Published Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:14 p.m.

Bob Jehn, Cloverdale's leading SMART train proponent, got an earful at Thursday's Cloverdale Rotary meeting, coming just after folks learned the commute train to their north county town would be delayed two years.

“It hit 'em between the eyes. I tried to assuage their fears, but they are upset, concerned and disappointed,” said Jehn, an insurance agent and a former member of the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit board.

That sentiment was echoed by many who said they believed approval of the quarter-cent sales tax increase in 2008 carried the promise that trains would roll by 2014 in Sonoma County, where voter approval was stronger than in Marin County. It also prompted longtime rail critics to renew charges that SMART continues to misrepresent the train's financial resources.

In downtown Santa Rosa, not far from the railroad depot where a SMART station is planned, Keo Hornbostel, general manager of the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel and a member of the Historic Railroad Square Association's board of trustees, said he was surprised and dismayed.

“Without knowing all the reasons behind this, I'd say delaying it at all is a big mistake and a big loss for the city,” he said. “The rail line is critical to retail and tourism in Railroad Square.”

Numerous comments posted at expressed disappointment that completion of the commute line through northern Sonoma County was being pushed back from 2014 to 2016. Many expressed anger that they were paying an extra tax for “a train to nowhere.”

Jehn, a former Cloverdale councilman and paid consultant to SMART, said he remains confident that the rail line eventually will run the full Larkspur-to-Cloverdale length.

“I am OK with what is going on because I think phasing in was going to be in the cards,” Jehn said. “Anybody who depends on a quarter-cent sales tax these days for funding has to know that the economy is in the tank.”

The recession, entering its third year, has caused sales and property tax revenues to plummet, forcing local governments, school and hospital districts and other entities to cut budgets and reduce services.

In addition, the tight-fisted lending market has made investors reluctant to buy a variety of tax-supported bonds that traditionally fund long-term projects.

On Wednesday, SMART's board of directors said they were forced by recession-driven funding problems to adopt a plan delaying completion of the Sonoma County portion from north of Santa Rosa — and possibly from Petaluma — until 2016 while the Marin County section remains on target for 2014.

“From a political perspective, it is a difficult disappointment to accept,” said former Rohnert Park Councilman Tim Smith, a SMART project supporter who was looking forward to a rail stop in his city. “But I still feel the train is part of our future.”

Smith said “it would have been nice had we approved the rail line way back when and we'd be talking about whether or not to raise fares now.”

Longtime SMART critics, however, said their warnings about the project are slowly coming to fruition.

Mike Arnold of Novato, a leader in the North Bay Citizens for Effective Transportation group that opposed the tax, said “this is not the same project” that voters narrowly approved in 2008.

He said the funding gap is $175 million, about $20 million more than SMART directors are acknowledging, and reliance on a federal funding scheme is unrealistic.

“Their promise that they will deliver service to Cloverdale by 2016 is about as reliable as their claim to voters in the fall of 2008 that they had enough money to build the whole system by 2014,” Arnold said.

Citing a 9 percent drop in sales tax revenue and a bond market reluctant to lend money, the SMART board decided to begin construction next year of the “local” portion of the project from Larkspur to an undetermined station in Sonoma County. Simultaneously, SMART would apply for federal Transportation Administration “New Starts” funding, which requires demonstration that viable projects are under way, for the remaining portion.

Debora Fudge, SMART board chairwoman and Windsor councilwoman, said phased construction is preferable to delaying completion of the entire 70-mile line until 2021.

“This at least gets us started with trains running by 2014 and finished with the entire project by 2017, compared to not seeing trains until 2021 if we can't find any additional funding,” Fudge said. “As painful as it is, I think it is the most fiscally responsible plan right now.”

She said that with the economy entering its third year of recession, “delaying this project by only two years is probably the most positive news we can expect.”

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I love that the people who delayed the whole project, thus CAUSING much of the problem, are crowing about this.


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