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 would give them a blank check for $2.4 billion, and make them untouchable and unaccountable to voters for the next 40 forty years.  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.  Taxpayers have put over $660 million into SMART; riders just $9 million.

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 the parallel Golden Gate Transit bus. Naturally they love it, and so they should, since taxpayers pick up about $100 of the round-trip cost so they can only pay $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. But probably not what motivated voters because they expected some greater social benefit.

To sell SMART officials deceptively worded the 2008 ballot as follows. “To relieve traffic, fight global warming … shall (SMART) levy a 1⁄4-cent sales tax for 20 years…” They did so already knowing the 2005 EIR said it would not improve congestion on 101 and would have “minimal” impact on greenhouse gases (GHG).  So far, the EIR has proven right and those promises have proven hollow.  The 2020 ballot repeats this same deception.

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 hours of delay 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 shows that SMART now emits 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 estimate the net effect because SMART never asked riders which mode they would take if SMART didn’t exist.  Public Records Requests reveal that SMART has never done any analysis of its impacts on GHG or congestion, which clearly shows SMART’s management simply doesn’t care whether SMART is honoring its promises or not.  Yet they expect us to trust them with $2.4 billion more.

In a misleading handout, which assumes 100% of SMART riders are commuters and 100% would use cars, SMART claims it’s saving about 1300 tons CO2/yr.  That figure is clearly wrong but let’s assume it’s true for the moment.  Consider the alternative.

To solve climate change we need to spend our money where it gets the most bang for the buck.  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 in that misleading handout.  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 parking lots, or accelerate the transition to electric cars.  In short, SMART is a very wasteful and ineffective way to fight climate change.

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 after having time to improve performance and restore trust.  Then we can 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 to spend this tax money elsewhere.

Oakmont resident Rich Harkness has a PhD in Urban Transportation Systems Planning.

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5 Comments

  1. David Zweig on February 16, 2020 at 11:27 am

    What is the best long term solution to the traffic choke on 101? It will only get worse, not better. Thank you.

  2. Bruce Bon on February 16, 2020 at 7:31 pm

    Congratulations and thank you for this article! This is the type of analytical approach that is seriously missing from the political promotions on both sides of this issue. A decision on such an important issue should NOT be made based on knee-jerk reactions to phrases like “reduce greenhouse emissions” or “reduce traffic congestion on 101” — we need quantitative data to show how much and at what cost, and you have provided at least some of the answers to such questions.

  3. James Foreman on February 19, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks for this great argument for a no vote. This kind of perspective and data should be the kind of information given for both sides of any issue in Oakmont and beyond. Oakmont is blocked by fear based politics and a board that is unwilling to be transparent and debate issues with opposing views.

    In my mind the train could be a catalyst for a renewal of public transportation that works for our society. Unfortunately I do not think it is heading in that direction because it only touches the surface of the transportation issues of Marin and Sonoma Counties. So I agree that we need SMART to be accountable and to make strides they agreed to make. How about we hold the leaders accountable to spend money on fixing our roads, which we have voted over and over to have done.

  4. Susan Leihy on February 24, 2020 at 8:48 pm

    Your analyses is right on! I have always been troubled about Smart’s acquisition of diesel trains! Also, any public agencies who request tax increases should open the books so that we can see how the tax dollars are being managed by looking at the expenditures. I did find the salary for the Manager st $390,000 per year to be excessive, as well as, the salaries for many other Smart employees. I commuted to San Francisco from Santa Rosa for 5 years. In the beginning I drove my car which was miserable! Then I started riding the Golden Gate Transit bus. I found that I could relax & read, sleep & do work if I wanted as the buses have WIFI. I rode the #72 Express all the way to San Francisco. Wind turbines for Marin & Sonoma is an excellent suggestion!

    • Rich Harkness on February 25, 2020 at 10:39 am

      As a former transportation and business planner I see many things wrong with SMART, but I think one of the most fundamental is that the whole exercise appears to have started with a solution looking for a problem, as opposed to the opposite. I think some folks thought a train would be “nice” and then starting looking for a way to justify it. (Contractors smelled big money) Saving GHG and reducing congestion sprang to mind so that’s what officials promised the train would accomplish in their attempt to sell it to voters. (See wording on the 2008 and 2020 ballots.) Good strategic planning would have started with a problem, like traffic congestion, and evaluated all the potential ways to reduce it. Same with GHG. As regards GHG, SMART would have not even been in the running as a solution since it’s not cost effective and may even be counterproductive.

      I think about SMART a lot and feel that we taxpayers should be able to step back and insist on a much more objective and strategic look at the system rather than rush into a vote now that will lock things in for the next 40 years. We need to consider: the prospects for (and desirability of) extensive growth in the 101 corridor, the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, the transition to electric cars, the questionable merits of extending the line to Cloverdale, how much Larkspur increases ridership, etc. And we really need SMART to ask riders what they would do without SMART because without that info its impossible to estimate its impact on GHG emissions. A “yes” vote now means that strategic analysis will never be done, voters won’t see the results or be able to act on them, and SMART will behave in the predictable way many government agencies behave; namely expand as much as possible and seek more money.

      Finally, I think our elected officials on the SMART Board have really shirked their duty by not finding out if SMART is actually saving GHG and reducing congestion as promised. Its like a corporate board not asking ,or caring, whether the company they oversee is making a profit.

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