The Press Democrat  April 26,2002

Rail Backers Push for Vote

Commuter crunch: Supporters of passenger train linking Sonoma, Marin counties optimistic sales tax can win in 2004 despite dismal history, strong opposition

By Spencer Soper  
Once 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.

Voters 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.

Doomsayers vocal

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 service.

Ticket 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 committees.

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 is questionable.

Economy takes toll

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 are today."

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.

Speed, convenience issues

"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.

Fight 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."

Rail Facts

* 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 passenger service.
* 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. -----