Press Democrat April 26,2002
Backers Push for Vote
crunch: Supporters of passenger train linking Sonoma, Marin counties optimistic
sales tax can win in 2004 despite dismal history, strong opposition
overshadowed by efforts to widen Highway 101, a proposed commuter rail system
linking Sonoma and Marin counties is taking center stage in the region's
long-running debate over raising taxes to improve transportation. The planned
68-mile route from Cloverdale to San Rafael hinges on voters approving a sales
tax to help pay for it, and supporters want to put a measure on the ballot in
2004. Three sales tax initiatives that included money for rail have failed since
1990. In each case, rail was linked to or accompanied by a proposed tax to widen
the highway. Now transportation officials think they can widen 101 from Windsor
to Novato without asking voters for a tax, which means a rail measure would
stand as the lone transportation issue before voters. But transportation
initiatives in the county have a messy political history.
Business groups wanting a wider freeway and environmentalists wanting commuter
trains have formed, and just as often broken, fragile coalitions aimed at wooing
Sonoma County voters. "The only reason we supported the highway at all was
to get the rail, not because we thought a wider highway was a good idea,"
said Joel Woodhull, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation Land Use
Coalition, which backs rail. In 1990 and 1998, the two sides united on tax
measures that would have paid for the highway widening, rail, bike lanes and
road improvements. But in 2000, the two sides split and sponsored their own
sales tax initiatives. Highway backers said they were double-crossed by rail
backers, who pumped money into an anti-highway tax campaign. Rail backers said
it was the highway crowd that snubbed them, trying to go it alone without
providing alternatives to the car.
Some of the hard feelings linger. "I can't imagine businesses' raising any
money for rail," said Keith Woods, executive director of the North Coast
Builders Exchange, a lobbying group for the construction industry that donated
more than $50,000 to past highway measures. The builders exchange has not taken
a position on commuter trains, but Woods has a message for rail backers:
"As soon as the freeway is complete, give me a call." That's expected
to be 2010 at the earliest.
have backed rail
Even if the highway were widened, rail backers say trains are needed to ease
freeway congestion, reduce air pollution and give commuters an alternative to
their cars. Past measures indicate a solid majority of voters supports commuter
rail. Some businesses, whose employees are tired of traffic or who want to make
it easy for tourists to get here, are beginning to embrace rail. But formidable
obstacles stand in the way. Winning two-thirds' voter approval for a new tax has
been difficult with the local electorate. Highway backers may not support a rail
initiative. And it could be difficult to gain cooperation from Marin County
activists when most commuters using the train would be from Sonoma County.
Some organizers of past transportation campaigns, who raised hundreds of
thousands of dollars and built broad-based coalitions only to fail, think any
transportation sales tax initiative is doomed. "Based on my experience, I
don't think any measure to increase the sales tax is going to pass," said
Herb Dwight, retired head of Optical Coating Laboratory Inc., who worked on the
failed 1998 tax measure. "I think it's a dead end."
History lends credence to his prediction. In 1998, the county put an advisory
measure on the ballot to see if voters supported plans to widen the highway,
create a commuter rail system, build bike lanes, patch pot holes and expand bus
service. Seventy-two percent of voters approved the advisory measure, but in the
same election only 48 percent supported a half-cent sales tax needed to pay for
the improvements. Despite the history, rail backers are optimistic. "I
think it's got a fighting chance," said Rohnert Park Councilman Jake
Mackenzie, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. "You
could argue that if people are not being asked to widen the freeway ... that
rail could be quite palatable." Transportation officials hope to start
commuter rail service in 2007.
Trains would run along the existing, inactive rail line that parallels Highway
101, and would stop at 12 stations between Cloverdale and San Rafael. The
ultimate goal is to extend the train to a ferry landing, but not immediately
because extending the track that far would be too costly. Most commuters would
take trains south in the morning and north in the evening, according to
projections. There would also be routes for reverse commuters, as well as midday
sales not enough
A sales tax is needed to subsidize operations because ticket sales would cover
only a fraction of the estimated $10 million annual cost. Even before train
service begins, it is expected to cost $100 million to upgrade the aging section
of rail line in Sonoma County alone. With the tax issue unresolved, rail
advocates have been nudging their plan forward. This month they saw some reasons
to be hopeful. A study commissioned by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit
Commission indicated train ridership would be higher than once projected, which
transportation officials hope will buoy support for rail. Also this month,
legislation that local leaders say will make it easier to get voters in Marin
and Sonoma counties to approve a rail tax was approved by two Assembly
Despite rail's popularity with politicians, it's too early to determine if many
business groups will join a broad coalition on the rail campaign. But when the
rail and highway advocates split two years ago, business made its position
abundantly clear. Builders, banks, contractors, car dealers and high-tech
companies contributed $875,000 for the highway campaign, more than for any other
countywide measure. In comparison, rail supporters raised only about $10,000.
Widening the highway has always been a top priority for business because it
provides immediate congestion relief, while a new rail system takes time to
attract riders, said Dan Condron, chairman of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce
Transportation Committee. The business community likely will endorse rail in
concept, but whether the big donations will flow in as they did for the highway
In addition to the past animosities between the two groups, the soft economy has
put businesses in a weaker position to throw money at campaigns. So the rail
camp's potential fund-raising problem could be as much about pocketbooks as it
is about politics. Still, some rail advocates think the lukewarm endorsement
from businesses will heat up when they realize that pavement alone can't solve
the region's traffic woes. And they hope the economy will turn around by 2004,
freeing up money for their campaign. "There is a growing number of people
in the business community who realize rail service will be critical to their
long-term survival," rail backer Rick Theis said. "Five years after
the highway widening, the six lanes will be just as congested as the four lanes
Some businesses, especially high-tech companies in what is called Telecom Valley
along Highway 101 in Petaluma, see value in a rail line that could take their
employees off the road. Advanced Fibre Communications, a telecommunications
equipment manufacturer in Petaluma and one of the region's largest employers,
has done surveys that indicate employees want commuter trains, said Jane
Hamilton, the company's communications manager.
"Our employees would love to be able to get on a train and do some work on
their way in and get some sleep on their way home," she said. But that
could depend on speed and convenience. Transportation officials have yet to
determine which type of train they will use on the proposed line, so it is
unknown whether taking a train will be comparable to driving.
Rail could also find some support in the tourist and convention industry.
Besides moving commuters, the rail line could deliver travelers to Wine Country
on excursion trains, especially if it hooks up with a ferry landing from San
Francisco. "We are thrilled about the possibility of people being able to
bypass 101," said Mo Renfro, executive director of the Santa Rosa
Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We're out there promoting the county, so
let's make it easy for people to get here. If they're tired of traffic, they can
get on a train."
Some rail advocates say there is still time to get the historically pro-highway
building industry energized for rail because commuter trains create the
potential for development along the tracks. Even if that happens, money and
business support don't win elections in Sonoma County.
For all the consultants, signs and advertisements highway backers bought with
their big-bucks campaign in 2000, the low-budget train tax measure garnered more
support. The highway tax measure received 58.5 percent, while the rail tax
picked up 60.3 percent of the vote. Both measures needed two-thirds' approval.
But unlike the highway measure, the 2000 rail measure did not face any organized
opposition. That could change in 2004 with the highway off the radar screen of
anti-tax and anti-growth groups. In 2000, the rail camp aligned with the
anti-highway group Citizens Against Wasting Millions. It was a dramatic shift in
position from the 1998 campaign, when rail and highway backers united against
the same opposition group.
may be lonely
"The rail component is going to have to fight it out on its own, and
historically, it's not been an easy fight," said Brian Sobel, a political
consultant who worked on past transportation measures. Transportation officials
say their job is to ignore the past and focus on putting together a clear plan
for commuter trains. More important than campaign contributions and political
alliances is demonstrating to the public that rail can make it easier to travel
the region, they say. "I think people are willing to work together to make
rail happen," said Cloverdale Mayor Bob Jehn, a transportation authority
board member. "It's ludicrous to have this resource in public hands and
just let it sit there and do nothing."
* Transportation officials in Sonoma and Marin counties aim to create a 68-mile
commuter rail system with 12 stops between Cloverdale and San Rafael by 2007.
* The trains would run parallel to Highway 101 on what is now an inactive rail
line. The historic line had been used for more than a century for freight and
* It is expected to cost $100 million to upgrade the rail line in Sonoma County.
Buying trains and operating the service would cost even more. * About 2,500
commuters would ride the trains each day, most of them going south in the
morning and north in the evening, according to a study released this month.
* The 12 stops would be in Cloverdale, Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor, Santa
Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, North Novato, South Novato, the Marin
Civic Center and San Rafael. -----