A SMART backer warned that if a sales tax to fund the planned rail line is repealed taxpayers would be on the hook for millions of dollars, while an opponent countered that voters should have the right to vote on a reconfigured plan.
The pair appeared Wednesday at the Chalet Basque restaurant in San Rafael as part of a forum on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train sponsored by the Marin Coalition. The coalition debates issues of public interest in Marin.
The grassroots group Repeal SMART is collecting signatures in an attempt to repeal a quarter-cent sales tax that helps support the Marin-Sonoma commuter rail line that has run into financial difficulties.
Voters approved a Larkspur-to-Cloverdale rail line and pathway in 2008 to be financed by the tax and to start in 2014.
But with dollars short, SMART hopes to start a line from San Rafael to Santa Rosa and adjacent bike and pedestrian path by 2016. Other parts of the project would then be phased in if money can be found.
Millions of dollars have already been sunk into the project and to undo it would leave taxpayers holding the bag, said Fairfax resident Andy Peri, representative of the SMART Riders Coalition, made up of unions, public officials and citizens.
"Who will pay? We will pay. What will we pay for? We will pay for nothing," Peri said. "I'm concerned about the debt we will be saddled with."
Peri told the crowd of about 50 that the project needs to keep moving forward.
"Many of these construction contracts and other contracts are activated and moving. Once equipment has been purchased and design has been done and costs have been incurred you can't just cut those contracts off," he said. "The agency needs to pay the bills. It's a lot of money we will have to pay if the repeal effort moves forward, and we will get absolutely nothing for that money."
John Parnell of Novato, who founded Repeal SMART, said the plan that voters approved in 2008 doesn't resemble what is now proposed.
"We did not vote for this (San Rafael to Santa Rosa) project, we did not vote for a project to be built in phases. We are only getting half of what we voted for," Parnell said. "We didn't vote on this. We have already spent millions, we better be sure we are all OK with it before we spend (more). You can call it a vote of confidence."
Parnell said SMART officials have told him that many public projects are phased.
"Many projects are phased, but that's not what was presented to voters. If this moves forward, it will always be viewed as a bait-and-switch project," he said.
Peri said rail is the way to help unclog busy Highway 101.
"The Novato Narrows widening is not a permanent solution," Peri said. "By the time these facilities get built they are usually at capacity. We will end up with the same gridlock we have today."
And Peri said the SMART project will bring jobs.
"There has been some squabbling about the number of jobs: 900, 800, 1,000 or 700, it doesn't really matter it is a lot of jobs," he said. "It's a lot of jobs for this area."
But Parnell said the high number of jobs has not been verified. Fellow Repeal SMART representative Clay Mitchell, who attended the forum, said there is no evidence that rail will do much to relieve traffic on Highway 101.
Parnell maintained that he is not anti-rail, but he said he wants voters to decide SMART's future.
"SMART doesn't seem to be willing to have the public decide this. They have made it clear they will do everything in their power in the courts to keep us from voting," he said.
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