[caption id="attachment_47936" align="alignright" width="292" caption="Lisa Wittke Schaffner and Gary Helfrich"][/caption]

Four years into the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, everyone’s looking to boost the economy and invest wisely. In the North Bay, voters have provided the opportunity to do both: the SMART Train & Pathway. A commuter train packaged with a visionary multi-use pathway, Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit is a wise investment in our economic, transportation, and environmental future.

That’s why the project has attracted broad-based support in the form of the SMART Riders Coalition: Business groups like Sonoma County Alliance and transportation groups like Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition have joined with labor, environmental, and social justice organizations to protect SMART.

SMART has already created at least 250 jobs, and contractor Stacy & Witbeck says SMART will create “at least 1,000” more good jobs by year’s end. That’s only with the first construction contract, awarded last week; SMART is prepared to award at least two more contracts this year, bringing even more jobs.

Once SMART is up and running, the project will further stimulate the economy by encouraging users to enjoy the restaurants and shops that already populate most SMART station areas. In addition, the project’s potential to boost the North Bay tourism economy is outstanding.  

SMART will offer North Bay residents an enjoyable alternative to traffic congestion along the Highway 101 corridor. Imagine vineyard views and a glass of wine on the way home from a meeting, or reading to your grandkids on the way to the corn maze in Petaluma. Increase your range and physical fitness by riding your bike along the SMART path to your station of choice, or enjoy a walk with your dog on the pathway. SMART will create an essential backbone currently missing from our North Bay transit system; its presence will round out the transit system, and help it expand. All this contributes to our region’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

SMART began construction this week on the first phase of the project’s initial segment, and expects to begin the second phase of that segment, including the multi-use pathway, later this year. SMART continues to plan for the full, 70-mile project; in the interim, it will offer express bus service to reach North to Cloverdale and South to Larkspur.

With all this progress, it’s clear that SMART is right on track, and on the pathway to completion.

But, beware: a misguided effort to repeal SMART’s sales tax measure, passed in 2008 by 69.5% of voters, could derail the project, leaving taxpayers with nothing to show for their investment.

The repeal SMART campaign claims to concern itself with protecting taxpayers’ interests. Don’t believe the hype: SMART foes have already needlessly cost taxpayers $17 million in additional bond interest. That’s just the beginning: if the repeal effort succeeds, taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

For example:In December, SMART had $5.8 million dollars in active local contracts. That’s money already spent.SMART has already spent funds associated with operating the district during the four years since Measure Q passed.SMART estimates at $800,000 - $4,000,000 the taxpayer cost of a ballot measure to repeal Measure Q.SMART’s legal team says that if there’s an election in November 2012, SMART would have about $200,000,000 in outstanding contracts that it would be required by law to honor. That means if the repeal succeeds, the courts are almost certain to require the continuation of the ¼ cent sales tax for at least 8 years in order to pay off the debt.

In summary, Repeal SMART will cost North Bay taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars for absolutely nothing, depriving us of transportation choice. Talk about a waste of money.

We’d rather protect taxpayers’ SMART investment, support the successful completion of the project, enjoy the train and pathway, and leave a legacy for generations for come.

Wouldn’t you?...

Lisa Wittke Schaffner is chief executive officer of Sonoma County Alliance. Gary Helfrich is the executive director of Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.