Cyclists and advocates from several key North Bay bicycle groups admonished leaders of SMART this week over slow progress on the path planned to stretch from Larkspur to Cloverdale, saying they would need to see clearer gains on that 70-mile route for the rail agency to reclaim their much-needed support.
Just 24 miles of the bike and pedestrian pathway have been completed in segments, with an additional 9 miles funded and scheduled to be built by 2023. At the same time, the cost of the path project is soaring and, based on the latest estimates, could exceed $204 million — more than double initial projections and equivalent to about a third of the $653 million that has been spent to build and launch the two-county passenger rail line.
SMART, meanwhile, is confronting the second of two profound economic recessions since voters in 2008 approved the quarter-cent sales tax that primarily funds operations. Reduced to limited weekday service only amid the pandemic slump in transit use, trains are operating along 45 miles, from Larkspur to north of Santa Rosa, with another 3-mile extension north to Windsor due by the end of next year.
Going forward, the agency has made no commitment of its annual tax revenues — totaling almost $39 million this year — to the path beyond matching dollars toward possible state and federal grant awards, irking some local advocates.
“SMART has not put as much priority on the path, despite what has been said periodically. The gaps make it difficult for the path to be useful,” Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told SMART leadership Wednesday during a virtual public forum. “Because what we all thought we were voting for in 2008 is I thought I would be able to ride without being with cars all the way along that pathway, and we’re nowhere near that, and I don’t know if we’re going to get that.
“The path only works if it can get you from where you are to where you want to go,” she added.
The agency and bike advocates came to a crossroads earlier this year, ahead of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s effort to pass a 30-year extension of its sales tax. The bike coalitions in both counties sat on the sidelines, refusing to endorse Measure I. They convinced allied groups, including the League of Women Voters and environmental interests, to do the same.
Voters rejected the extension by a margin of more than 13 points, a resounding loss that SMART officials acknowledged reflected the need for reevaluation, and reconnecting with past supporters to regain their trust.
Bicyclists say they are a core constituency that SMART continues to take for granted. One of every 10 SMART riders has brought a bike aboard the train since its launch in August 2017, according to agency figures. In total, 1.93 million passengers have ridden the train.
Phil Mooney is a geology lecturer at Sonoma State University who commutes to the Rohnert Park campus on SMART from his home in San Rafael — or, at least he used to before the pandemic hit and forced most instruction online. The former pro cyclist would often bring his bike to work to ride the 30 miles back home at the end of the day.
“The opening of SMART really profoundly changed my life for the better. It’s enabled me to live a car-free daily life,” Mooney, 35, said during Wednesday’s forum. “With all of that being said, it’s been hard to say that I’m very disappointed and not a supporter of SMART. I feel betrayed by SMART, for the lack of follow-through on any of these projects.”
Mooney was one of 30 public speakers who gave input during the 90-minute public listening session involving SMART’s top officials, including General Manager Farhad Mansourian and more than half of its 12-member board. It was the latest in a series of eight such public meetings devised in response to voters rejecting the sales tax renewal. Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, who serves as SMART’s board chair and works professionally as the chief marketing officer at Bay Area bicycle retail chain Mike’s Bikes, moderated the public meeting.
Feedback from fellow cyclists was critical, and, at times, scathing.
“It was supposed to be train and pathway together, and that clearly has not been the case,” said Mill Valley resident Cameron Stewart, a member of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “What really strikes me is that SMART does not have any strategy, structure or plan to actually fund and build the pathway, and rank which projects are actually ready. So I’m most disappointed with that, and the fact that there’s no committed funding. Hope for outside funding really is not a strategy. It’s going to take another 10 years, if we’re lucky.”