THE PRESS DEMOCRAT - April 14, 2002


Proponents of commuter rail in Sonoma and Marin counties are pushing state legislation that would create a new political district and, they believe, make it easier to pass a sales tax to support the train system.

Opponents of the proposed rail system between Cloverdale and San Rafael say the bill by Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, is a sellout of Marin County voters, whose political will would be drowned out by more-populous Sonoma County.  "This looks to me like subterfuge,'' said Nancy McCarthy, president of the Marin United Taxpayers Association. ``I can't imagine the people of Marin County will be happy to see their votes diluted, which is exactly what this legislation will do.''

Nation's legislation, called the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District Act, would create a new agency that could own the rail line from Healdsburg to San Rafael, operate commuter trains and put a single tax measure for rail to voters in both counties. Local officials hope to put such a measure on the ballot in 2004 and begin commuter train service in 2007.

A 68-mile commuter rail line between Cloverdale and San Rafael is a key piece of Sonoma County's long-range plan to relieve congestion on Highway 101. The trains would run on an existing rail line parallel to the highway. A sales tax is needed to pay for the system, but several past tax measures for rail have failed in both counties.

Supporters of the rail system say the two-county district would make it easier to get approval of a sales tax.

``We believe that (the new rail district) is essential for the realization of our transportation plan,'' said Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

Historically, efforts to create a Sonoma-Marin rail system have depended on voters in each county passing separate tax measures simultaneously.

The lack of one cohesive sales tax measure caused confusion that thwarted voter approval, rail backers say.

One vote for two counties. The proposed rail district would be able to put one tax measure to voters in both counties. Besides simplifying the process, some rail advocates say support in Sonoma County could counter opposition in Marin County. The two counties have a combined population of 700,000 people, two-thirds of whom live in Sonoma County.

``The theory is that a surplus of yes votes in Sonoma could carry a deficit of yes votes in Marin,'' rail advocate Lionel Gambill said. But that tactic has some Marin tax activists crying foul. A recent poll in Marin indicated that voters would not support a transportation sales tax to pay for rail. Marin activists who opposed past rail tax measures say the legislation could backfire. Marin voters would see the new rail district as an underhanded move to subsidize commuter trains that would primarily serve Sonoma County, they say.

The political conflict stretches far beyond Marin into Humboldt County, where rail officials say the proposed Sonoma-Marin rail district threatens the viability of freight trains. The inactive rail line runs north from San Rafael past Eureka, and has multiple owners with different interests. The section from San Rafael to Healdsburg, which the proposed district would take over, is now owned by a consortium of three regional and local government agencies.

The North Coast Railroad Authority, which is part of the consortium, wouldn't be part of the proposed new rail district. The new rail district would have a 12-member board composed mostly of elected officials from Sonoma and Marin counties. Railroad authority officials say they would lose their control over the southern section of the rail line, and they are worried commuter trains would squeeze out freight trains. The railroad authority has sole ownership of the line north of Healdsburg.

Hopes for freight persist. The line has not been used for freight for several years, but rail officials on the North Coast say they are trying to get a new freight carrier. Humboldt County wants to preserve the line for freight trains because it is trying to make Humboldt Bay an international shipping port, said Leo Sears, a railroad authority board member from Eureka. Commuter and freight trains can run on the same line, but the railroad authority wants to be assured the proposed Sonoma-Marin rail district would accommodate freight, Sears said.

``Apparently, there is a full-court press to get this thing pushed through,'' he said. ``We are very concerned about our interest being taken away from us.'' Rohnert Park Councilman Mackenzie, who also sits on the railroad authority board, said commuter service would benefit the agency. With commuter and freight trains running, there would be more revenue to maintain the aging rail line, he said.

Stuck in the middle.

The opposition from the North Coast has put Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Duncans Mills, in the middle of a political tug-of-war. Her district includes Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties, and she sits on the Assembly Transportation Committee, which is scheduled to discuss the proposed rail district Monday. Strom-Martin supports the proposed rail district in concept, but wants to see if the railroad authority's concerns can be worked out, her spokeswoman, Mary Morgan, said.

That could be tough.

The railroad authority wants the proposed rail district to be prohibited from using ``light rail.'' Smaller light-rail commuter trains cause less pollution than bigger diesel locomotives, but they are incompatible with freight. The opposition to light rail could be a problem.

Assemblywoman Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, will support the Sonoma-Marin rail district so long as it uses light-rail commuter trains, her chief of staff, Matt Reilly, said. Wiggins, whose district does not extend north of Santa Rosa, sits on the Assembly Local Government Committee, which is scheduled to discuss the rail district legislation later this month. Her desire conflicts directly with the anti-light-rail position of Strom-Martin's constituents.

Even some ardent rail backers have questions about the proposed rail district that they say are critical to the prospects of getting voters to approve a sales tax to pay for rail. The rail agency must have flexibility to spend money on bike paths, buses and pedestrian walkways linking neighborhoods with the rail line, said Joel Woodhull, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation/Land Use Coalition, a group that advocates rail. Without linking neighborhoods removed from the rail line, voters in those areas will never support a sales tax measure for rail, Woodhull said.

Paul Smith, Nation's chief of staff, said there is plenty of time to negotiate how the rail district should be established as the bill wends its way through the Legislature. `This bill is really early in the process of becoming law,'' he said.