March 2020 Election Explaining Our Position on SMART

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Marin County Bicycle Coalition has the ability to take positions on ballot measures. After much deliberation, we have made the decision to neither endorse nor oppose Measure I, which would extend Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s (SMART) 1/4-cent sales tax 30 years from its current expiration in 2029. We remain highly supportive of the SMART rail and pathway project, but continue to have concerns with the agency’s performance on the pathway. We are hopeful that SMART will address our concerns (outlined below) and work to complete the pathway in a timely fashion as promised to voters in 2008.

This March, Marin and Sonoma County voters will be asked whether to support Measure I, a 30-year extension of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s (SMART) quarter-cent sales tax. SMART is coming to voters well ahead of the tax’s 2029 expiration because an extension would enable them to restructure their debt, saving $12m per year starting in 2023.

Many bicycling advocates are conflicted on Measure I. On one hand, SMART passenger rail provides the North Bay with a much-needed transportation option that is aligned with our environmental values and improves car-free mobility. On the other, the agency has been sluggish in its delivery of the parallel multi-use pathway and refuses to commit to funding or a timeline toward its completion. When we polled our membership on SMART last summer, 52 percent said they would support a sales tax extension, 29 percent would oppose, and 19 percent were undecided. Support from MCBC members was nearly unanimous in 2008.

For reasons outlined below, MCBC will remain neutral on Measure I.

smart leadership’s apathy toward pathway project

Both Marin and Sonoma County Bicycle Coalitions (MCBC and SCBC) were instrumental in the passage of Measure Q (2008), when we bought into and helped sell SMART’s vision of a train and pathway system that would be built in lockstep.

11 years later, SMART itself has added just 7.9 miles of pathway alongside nearly 45.5 miles of rail between the Larkspur and Sonoma County Airport Stations, with other agencies having contributed 7.2 miles. 13 miles remain unfunded along the stretch.

A SMART Director was recently quoted as saying that the pathway is “predominantly done,” which is far from the truth. The remaining gaps between San Rafael and Novato are so significant that the route is non-existent.

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At every turn, SMART’s decisions have made it clear that it is a rail-first agency, and that the pathway should only advance when it does not impede or compete for funding with the rail project.

Many who were involved at the time point to 2011 as the turning point when, under pressure from the recession, SMART made several moves to address a revenue shortfall, including cutting funding for the pathway from $91m to just $28m.

Since then, SMART has spent very little of its own funds on construction of the pathway, opting instead to rely on highly competitive bicycle/pedestrian grants. The $28m supposedly allocated for the pathway has not reappeared at any point in SMART’s budgeting process. We have also warned against SMART’s approach to funding the pathway, which limits progress to the success of SMART’s grant applications. To their credit, staff has done an exceptional job delivering outside funding in Sonoma County, but we’re not confident this trend will continue in Marin. We have repeatedly asked for a “Plan B,” to no avail.

measure i expenditure plan falls short

In 2019, as SMART began mulling the sales tax extension, MCBC and SCBC staff asked SMART to prioritize the pathway with any additional funds generated by the potential passage of Measure I, in keeping with language included in SMART’s original Expenditure Plan (2008) and the intent of Measure Q:

If additional funds become available, the SMART Board will prioritize completion of the bicycle/pedestrian pathway.

Much to our dismay, the language above was omitted from the 2020 Expenditure Plan. Over 400 community members emailed the SMART Directors prior to adoption of the Expenditure Plan urging them to renew their commitment to the pathway. These emails and our requests were harshly dismissed by the Board, which again refused to commit to funding or a timeline toward the delivery of the pathway.

our wishlist

As much as MCBC would like to actively campaign for SMART, as we did in 2008, we will not do so until we see improved commitment and accountability toward the delivery of the pathway in Marin. Our recommendations follow:

1) Commit to funding the pathway with savings resulting from the passage of Measure I (as described above). Should Measure I pass, SMART will save approximately $12m annually starting in 2023. These savings could be used to build out the entire remaining pathway between Larkspur and Sonoma County Airport (estimated cost: $35-40m) in a timely fashion.

2) Take immediate steps to deliver one of the following unbuilt pathway segments in Marin. Advance the remaining segments to shovel-ready status:

  • McInnis to Smith Ranch

  • Smith Ranch to Hamilton

  • Hamilton to Hanna Ranch

  • Hanna Ranch to Novato Creek

3) Create a gameplan toward delivering the remaining pathway. SMART should create a document that: 1) includes the cost and status of unbuilt segments, 2) prioritizes unbuilt segments based on their importance in the local/regional bicycle/pedestrian networks, and 3) outlines potential funding sources and partnership opportunities for each segment. This would aid the Board, staff, and the public in better understanding and providing feedback on SMART’s plans for the pathway build-out.

4) Include pathway projects for the Board of Directors’ consideration during the budget cycle every year.

Each of these steps would ensure that the Board and public are able to monitor progress on the pathway and, crucially, will enable the Board to make informed budget decisions on both rail and pathway projects.

other observations on smart

Below, we outline other observations on SMART, explaining what’s working well and what needs to improve (all from a bicycling perspective).

bikes onboard

Kudos: Each of SMART’s two-car trains accommodate up to 24 bicycles, space permitting. Nearly ten percent of riders bring a bike onboard, demonstrating the complementary nature of the two modes.

Room for Improvement: Bike spaces conflict with fold-down seating and are spread throughout the train, making it awkward to find space during peak hours. We suggest the creation of a dedicated “bike car” on each train (similar to what Caltrain offers), which would reduce conflicts between passengers and create a more predictable and orderly boarding process for those riding with bikes.

bike parking

Kudos: Following MCBC and SCBC’s advocacy in 2017, SMART has installed bike racks and electronic bike lockers at all stations.

rider feedback / public engagement

Kudos: SMART occasionally surveys riders on schedule changes, though on specific topics (such as schedule changes).

Room for Improvement: 

  • SMART rarely, if ever, solicits rider feedback in an open-ended fashion. We recommend the creation of an advisory committee comprised of regular riders, including those with mobility impairments and people who bring bicycles onboard.

  • SMART Board meeting agendas are often vague, which puts the public at a disadvantage.

  • SMART Board meetings are held at a time and location that few people can attend (midday on Wednesdays in Penngrove, nowhere near a SMART station). Meetings should be more accessible to the public, especially by train.

members make it happen

We’re proud to be your voice, advocating for better bicycling in Marin. Please support our efforts by joining Marin County Bicycle Coalition today.

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