SMART could face challenge seeking tax extension without dates for Healdsburg, Cloverdale stations

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Doug Kerr of Healdsburg wonders when the SMART rail service will reach his city.

A mainstay at Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board meetings, the self-described rail advocate began questioning early this year the 12-member board about the timeline. However, board members have been unable to offer a satisfactory response, saying they still don’t have a target date.

Kerr, 68, fears the North Bay commuter rail agency’s continued inability to identify one could cost SMART a potential sales-tax extension it seeks in March.

“The 2008 sales tax that funded SMART was advertised to build a 70-mile system, which would include where I live in Healdsburg,” the retired electrical engineer told the board last week. “If you want north county to approve an extension of the sales tax, you’ve got to tell us when it’s going to get to Healdsburg and Cloverdale. Otherwise, it’s going to look like false advertising again.”

SMART staff continues to work on a long-term spending plan so when it comes time this fall for the board to make a decision on the ballot measure, the agency can justify the extension to voters in Marin and Sonoma counties, who passed the current 20-year quarter-cent sales tax, Measure Q, with 70% approval.

SMART expects to open the Larkspur station by the end of the year, completing the system’s southern terminus and adding another 2 miles to its existing 43-mile passenger rail line, which launched in August 2017. The $55 million needed to extend the line about 3 miles north from the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport station to Windsor by the end of 2021 also has been identified through state grants and new bridge toll revenues.

To date, SMART has secured more than $300 million in state and federal grant money to build out its stations and track.

But how the agency intends to come up with the $364 million needed to extend the line an additional 22 miles north to Cloverdale — and the $11 million needed to construct a long-promised second Petaluma station on the city’s east side — remains unknown.

“The expenditure plan that we’re putting out there needs to be real dollars. It needs to actually get the signoff from the public and have the public feel like they can trust that what we’re promising we’re going to deliver,” said Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers, a member of the SMART board. “Otherwise, I don’t see this passing.”

Gary Phillips, SMART’s board chairman, acknowledged the agency’s predicament moving forward with an extension without pinpointing dates for the Healdsburg and Cloverdale stations. Without a timeline, he understands it will be a challenge for SMART to get the two-thirds voter approval for the sales tax extension.

“I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do that,” said Phillips, who serves as mayor of San Rafael. “The sales-tax extension is not going to provide for additional construction funding, so therefore, we have to rely upon outside funding.

“That’s the challenge that’s going to be before us, because if we don’t anticipate that, we’re not going to Cloverdale, quite frankly, from my view,” he added. “We’re going to have to make some hard decisions, and I guarantee it’s going to be very difficult.”

Some debate looms among board members over what led to their decision to build the railroad in phases after early tax revenues fell far short of expectations.

Measure Q generated $289 million in its first decade. In contrast, the agency initially projected it would have received $445 million by now and a total of $890 million over the life of the 20-year tax.

SMART blames the shortfall on the Great Recession, which sent the economy into a tailspin in 2008. The price tag of the 70-mile system, including an adjacent multi-use pathway, was originally set at $541 million.

However, with the estimated $194 million now needed to extend the line 5 miles north from Windsor to Healdsburg and the $170 million needed to go an additional 17 miles to Cloverdale, the cost for full build-out is now projected at $944 million.

That doesn’t include the cost to complete the bike path. About 20 miles of the path have been built so far.

In April, Sonoma County Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt, who sit on the board, said they suspected the sales tax was never going to generate enough money to complete the rail system and that SMART should have instead pursued a half-cent tax.

“Many sales-tax measures that needed a half-cent don’t poll high enough to pull in a half-cent, so you go for a quarter and you make do. The investment is what it is and we need to continue to go forward,” Rabbitt told his fellow board members. “There’s really no alternative but to go back to the voters for a sales-tax extension.”

Deb Fudge, Windsor’s vice mayor and one of the SMART board’s longest-tenured members, has repeatedly rejected the suggestion that the board knew it needed a half-cent sales tax.

“I was here then, and we all did not know that because I would not have moved forward if I had known,” she said, referring to Measure Q. “And it sounded like we were deceiving the public, and we weren’t.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or

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