NORTH BAY -- An effort to allow voters to repeal the 2008 sales tax measure that funds a proposed commuter rail system in the North Bay has failed after election officials in Sonoma and Marin counties collected fewer than the minimum signatures required to advance the matter to the ballot.
The Marin County Registrar of Voters completed a count of 9,111 signatures this morning. That brings to 14,582 the number of signatures submitted from both counties, including an initial tally of 5,471 Sonoma County signatures turned in Friday.
The county registrars said they would verify the petitions only if they exceeded 15,000. That’s the number repeal proponent RepealSMART contended was necessary to put a repeal measure before voters in November, a threshold set by the state’s Prop. 218 and roughly 15 percent of residents in both counties.
However, officials from Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit argued that 39,000 signatures must be collected for a ballot measure to repeal Measure Q, a quarter-cent tax that voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved with a 70 percent majority in 2008.
With this failure of the repeal, funding from a $191 million bond sale in December will be released from escrow and used to fund additional contracts for the proposed transit system. SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said that the legal process to release the funds would take 2-3 months, and he hoped for at least two more construction contracts to be awarded by this summer.
“This has been a cloud over our heads for a long time,” said Valerie Brown, chair of the SMART Board of Directors and Sonoma County supervisor. Ms. Brown said that the board valued the democratic process, “but now we can really get the wheels rolling.”
Clay Mitchell, co-chair of RepealSMART, said he is among those who reversed their support of the tax after the economic downturn forced SMART to scale back plans. Instead of a 70-mile line spanning the length of both counties, the agency chose to phase construction, starting with a 38.5-mile stretch between Santa Rosa in Sonoma County and San Rafael in Marin.
Voters should be given a chance to repeal the tax after those changes to the SMART project, Mr. Mitchell said. RepealSMART in August filed an intention to petition for a ballot measure and spent the next six months gathering signatures, all the way up until a few hours from the Jan. 27 deadline.
Despite the failure of the measure, the results showed that an increasing number of people have come to question the proposed transit system, according to Mr. Mitchell.
“It shows clearly that there are more than 13 people who support taking another look at this, unlike (what) Mr. Mansourian has said,” he said.
Mr. Mitchell said he and other repeal supporters believe that they weren’t given clear requirements during the petition process, delaying their efforts. Additionally, since the SMART board of directors would determine if the signatures were sufficient to call an election, the board was unlikely to support the lower threshold, he said.
RepealSMART’s core members will be meeting soon to determine their future plans, according to Mr. Mitchell. Those plans will likely include filing a notice of intent to collect signatures for a new, identical ballot measure “in the next few days.”
SMART’s board awarded a $103 million design-build contract for its first phase of construction early this month to railroad specialists Stacy and Witbeck Inc. and and Herzog Contracting Corp. The work will entail many underlying elements of the system, including tracks, railroad crossings and bridges.