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SMART says they’re new and need time.
SMART says they’re new and need time. Riders inside Smart train: Photo: sonomamarintrain.org and Commuters at Rush Hour in Novato - Photo: www.novatochamber.com/novatofawm/getting-there/

Op-ED
Smart Commuter Train
No on Measure I

Feb 12, 2020

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By Rich Harkness, PhD.

A NO vote on Measure I won’t kill SMART because they have money to keep operating another 10 years.  But a NO vote will give voters time to see if SMART can perform better than it has so far.  A YES vote will make SMART untouchable and unaccountable to voters for the next 40 years, and commit us to spend $2.4 billion more on this train even if we decide there are better uses for our money in the years ahead. The average household has already paid $970 in sales taxes for SMART and will be legally obligated to pay about $9800 more if Measure I passes.

Beside some bike path the only tangible thing SMART has provided in return, and for just a few, is a nicer ride than using a car or bus. Naturally they love it, and so they should, since taxpayers pick up about $100 of the round-trip cost so the rider only pays $10.  This comes to a $25,000/year taxpayer subsidy for each regular commuter.  It’s a gift from the many to a lucky few.  Taxpayers have put over $660 million into SMART; riders just $9 million.

SMART street crossing. Photo-Alvin Jornada - The Press Democrat

SMART was never a serious attempt to reduce congestion or greenhouse gas (GHG). It was just an appealing concept with big money for contractors, who were the main campaign supporters. The 2005 EIR said it would not improve congestion on 101 and would have “minimal” impact on GHG. But to sell the idea, officials worded the 2008 ballot as follows. “To relieve traffic, fight global warming ... shall (SMART) levy a 1⁄4-cent sales tax for 20 years...” Cleary that’s what SMART promised and most people expected.  So how has SMART delivered on these promises?

Consider the oft-congested stretch of 101 between Petaluma and Novato. It carries about 13,700 people in cars south during the morning whereas the train carries 590.  Without SMART perhaps half would take the bus, but even if all drove, the train is taking only one car in every 23 off the road.  Meanwhile SMART is causing delays at its many street crossings.  

Having just written a book about global warming I know the urgency of reducing GHG, but it appears SMART is either making the situation worse or helping just a little depending on how many of its riders would take the bus versus drive if SMART didn’t exist.  A detailed study (at notsosmart.org/numbers-dont-lie/) shows that SMART now emit about three times more GHG than if all its riders took the bus. If all drove cars SMART could be saving a little, but it’s impossible to say because SMART never asked riders which mode they would take.  Public Records Requests reveal that SMART has never done any analysis of its impacts on GHG or congestion, which clearly shows SMARTs management simply doesn’t care whether SMART is honoring its promises or not.  

Solving climate change will be costly so we need to spend our money where it does the most good.  In a biased handout, which assumes all SMART riders would revert to cars and none to buses, SMART claims the train is saving about 1300 tons CO2/yr.  That’s questionable but let’s assume it’s true.  Consider the alternative.  

If we spent the $37 million in sales-tax dollars now going to SMART in just one year on large wind turbines instead, they would save about 15,000 tons of CO2/yr. That’s over ten times what SMART claims to save under the most optimistic assumptions.  At the end of the second year we would be saving twenty times as much as SMART, thirty times the next year and so forth.  Turns out the extra $2.4 billion SMART wants could buy enough wind turbines to supply all the homes in Marin and Sonoma County.  Alternately we could greatly expand large solar systems like over the Sutter hospital parking lot, or accelerate the transition to electric cars.  In short, SMART is an environmental mistake.  

SMART says they’re new and need time.  Let’s give it to them by voting NO on Measure I and asking them to return in a few years when we know more about their performance, they’ve restored trust, and we’ve had time to decide if that’s still the best way to spend $2.4 billion.  If we yote YES now the games over, SMART will remain unaccountable and we can never decide this tax money could be better spent elsewhere.

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