By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Marin County Grand Jury is urging the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency to postpone its $91 million pedestrian-bike pathway as a way to help solve a funding shortfall that may jeopardize the launch the commute rail line on schedule.
The grand jury report also is critical of the retirement system set up for the 10 Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency employees, calling it generous and unsustainable, and suggests that it be reconsidered. Jurors also called for SMART to undergo an independent audit.
“This project, which appeared to be achievable less than two years ago, now faces overwhelming obstacles,” the report states. “The Grand Jury urges the SMART Board to provide the leadership required to surmount these significant challenges.”
The report, “SMART: Steep Grade Ahead,” was released Friday.
In a written response, SMART said that during the past 20 months it has reached many of the same conclusions.
“Because of the difficult economy, SMART does face financial obstacles, as the report suggests. We are working to address those obstacles and, as the report indicates, the decisions made by the Board of Directors over the next six months will be critical to the success of the project.”
SMART spokesman Chris Coursey said any other response will be made by the agency’s board of directors.
SMART is being funded by a quarter-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2008 that had been projected to generate $890.7 million over 20 years. Because of the economic downturn, sales tax projections are down 5 percent and construction costs increased 9 percent, creating a shortfall currently estimated to be $155 million.
SMART has been operating under a plan that calls for starting service on the 70-mile line from Cloverdale to Larkspur in 2014. Consultants are now updating construction estimates, looking for cost-cutting measures and revising tax revenue projections.
The new figures will be considered by SMART directors in October and November.
The Marin Grand Jury report states that “a viable and sustainable alternative to Highway 101 is essential for the environmental and economic vitality of both Marin and Sonoma counties” and commends the civic leaders who have worked the past two decades to make it happen.
However, a single-track line that serves passengers and the North Coast Railroad Authority freight trains “will place a significant burden upon SMART to manage this opportunity safely and wisely.”
The Grand Jury recommends that SMART design rail cars that have the maximum number of seats rather than worrying about cars with bathrooms, snack bars and bicycle racks.
It also recommends the $91 million pedestrian-bicycle path that is to run alongside the rail line be deferred until alternate funding can be found.
It will be incumbent on SMART’s decision-makers to focus on the ‘people-mover’ aspect of the train,” the Grand Jury said. “The ‘ambiance’ or ‘experience’ of rail travel should be a secondary goal.”
The pedestrian-bicycle path was a selling point crucial to getting voters to approve the measure, and bike storage makes the rail system more attractive to riders, said Christine Culver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
“I think they would be making an enormous error removing the path; it would make the public very unhappy,” Culver said.
The Grand Jury recommends that SMART undertake an independent program audit as it progresses with decision-making this year, and that it increase the number of members on, and the powers of, an independent Citizens Oversight Committee.
It criticizes a SMART policy of paying the employees’s share of CalPERS retirement plan contributions, which equal about 7 percent of salaries. For the present staff of 10 workers, that’s about $60,000 a year, but will increase as the staff size grows. That cost is in addition to the employer’s share, which is about 12 percent of salaries.
SMART officials said, however, that is a policy the board of directors already has planned to reconsider.
The Grand Jury also recommends that SMART come up with budget-reduction options, re-evaluate its ridership figures and adopt a marketing plan to maximize ridership.