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Cyclists demand SMART build more of North Bay bike path to regain support

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.

Novato City Councilman Eric Lucan, who has served as SMART’s board chair in 2020, during a January meeting at agency headquarters in Petaluma. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)
Novato City Councilman Eric Lucan, who has served as SMART’s board chair in 2020, during a January meeting at agency headquarters in Petaluma. (Beth Schlanker / The Press Democrat)

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.”

“If we were to look at usage statistics, I think that they would be seriously impaired by that piecemeal nature of the path,” added Steve Saxe, president of the Santa Rosa Cycling Club. “If it were continuous for longer distances and didn’t push riders and pedestrians out onto public roadways, there would be significantly more usage.”

Only a few public speakers said they were satisfied with the extent of multiuse pathway built to date. SMART, reeling from a tax revenue slump in the wake of the last recession, was forced to phase its entire build-out, opening commuter service along a truncated 43-mile rail line.

SMART has constructed path segments in stretches starting in 2013 as it rebuilt rail line. But almost every addition — like much of the rail line itself — has required securing state and federal grants.

“Two thumbs up for what you’ve accomplished up to this point,” said Geoffrey Smith, co-owner of BikePartners Bike Shop, near SMART’s downtown Santa Rosa station. “What I see is 24 miles of bike path, more or less, that are built. I know that you can’t please all of the people all the time, but you can please most of them. There are a lot of people who ride bicycles who don’t know about the path, and would avail themselves of it if they knew.”

The rail extension to Windsor also will include a parallel path. But beyond that, about 37 miles of the route remain to be built, mostly in Sonoma County. Already, through outside grants and revenues from SMART’s current tax measure, the agency and rail-side cities have spent $107 million on the path, plus committed $18 million more to the forthcoming 9 miles. The entire project was originally pegged at $91 million, but could end up requiring more than twice that amount to finish.

Ahead of the tax extension vote in March, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt had rebuked the local bicycle coalitions for staying neutral on the measure, saying the groups that count some 15,000 people on their email lists had overplayed their hands and exaggerated their political clout. But on Wednesday, the longtime SMART board member who next month is expected to take over as its chair, sought to strike a conciliatory tone Wednesday.

“Paths are expensive. Public works projects are expensive,” Rabbitt said. “It’s really a multitude of sources that really accomplish and get things built. And so that does create this little bit of patchwork that we’ve been talking about, but I totally understand the need to kind of fill those crucial gaps to make the longest continuous sections that make the most sense. I think we heard that loud and clear as well.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, an 8-year SMART director, is poised to become the North Bay commuter rail agency’s next board chair. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, an 8-year SMART director, is poised to become the North Bay commuter rail agency’s next board chair. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

SMART is likely to return to voters at some point in the next few years, and Rabbitt said the range of public input will help the SMART board to shape future policy geared to SMART’s survival and expansion. The big question for the path, he said, would be to decide how much of the sales tax revenue is dedicated to its extension versus build-out of the rail line.

“It’s been three short years, really, on a $650 million infrastructure investment that is very unique, and I think that we all should be proud of that and we should continue to be on the same page, and that’s our dedication to you,” Rabbitt said, referring to the launch of train service. “I love the investment that we’re making in our community — both the rail and the path. I think it’s important that we continue to invest in our community for future generations knowing that it’s all incremental and we need to make sure that we don’t stop.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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