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[whitespace] Richard Gaines
Michael Amsler

Watchdog: Transit activist Richard Gaines participated in a recent transit forum. This week, Gaines and other successful opponents of Measures B and C were planning their next move in a bid to create an effective rail system.

Local environmentalists pick up the pieces after defeat of transit tax plan

By Greg Cahill and Paula Harris

THERE COULD BE a rocky road ahead for North Bay transit. The overwhelming defeat this week of sales tax measures in Marin and Sonoma counties that would have funded nearly a billion dollars in transportation improvements threatens to unravel the fragile coalition of environmentalists, business leaders, and public officials that spent eight years constructing the transit fix.

"There's definitely a danger that the special interests might go back to their respective corners," says Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, a leading environmental group that had lobbied for the passage of Measures B and C. SCCA had viewed the transit package as a last chance to construct a passenger rail service, agreeing to the plan under the condition that the business community, which wanted two extra freeway lanes on Highway 101, would in turn back a start-up rail system on the old Northwestern Pacific Line between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.

The coalition arose after the 1990 defeat of similar sales tax measures in the North Bay. Public opinion polls have shown that there is not enough support for just extra freeway lanes or merely a passenger-rail package. "The environmental community would have been dumped by the business community a long time ago if that weren't the case," says Green. "We all have to be bedfellows if we're going to get our packages accepted by the public. That's the nature of consensus politics."

Separate ballot measures that spelled out a wish-list of more freeway lanes, a passenger rail service, beefed-up bus service, additional bike trails, and other transit improvements won by a landslide in both counties. But Sonoma and Marin voters rejected by a 2-1 margin a pair of companion advisory measures that would have authorized a 1/2-cent, 20-year sales tax increase to pay for the improvements. In an effort to skirt a state law requiring a two-thirds vote to enact such tax increases, county officials had placed non-binding, advisory measures on the ballot that would have requested but did not require the boards of supervisors in the North Bay communities to spend the tax revenue on transportation improvements.

In Sonoma County, the transit measures were at the heart of a contentious battle, and became a major focus in the 2nd Supervisorial District race in which Petaluma Police Sgt. Mike Kerns defeated Petaluma City Councilwoman Jane Hamilton for a seat on the board. Backers of Measures B and C outspent opponents by a 28-1 margin, spending nearly $400,000 on mailers, billboards, and radio spots while opponents laid out a mere $14,000 on a single mailer.

"Now we just have to go back to the drawing board," says veteran Sonoma county conservationist Bill Kortum. "The encouraging thing is that 72 percent of the voters want that transit package, both rail and freeway improvements. Now we have to figure out how to finance it."

Yet the sales tax measures may have been doomed from the start. "[The rejection of the tax measures] reflects an attitude that's a nationwide phenomenon," says Sonoma State University assistant professor of political science Catherine Nelson. "People are making more demands of government, but they don't want to pay for them."

But some observers think the defeat says more about distrust than stinginess. "I don't think the defeat of the taxes says anything about people's lack of willingness to pay for these improvements," concludes Green. "I don't think [opponents of the measures] can take any comfort in this as a mandate from the people. There is a legitimate concern about trust. If this had been a binding measure [in Sonoma County], I think it would have passed."

Others agree that the advisory measure was a weak link in the transit package and may have been viewed as a sneaky attempt by county officials to get a blank check from voters. "I think the message is clear: People are wary of the split-vote idea," says Greenbelt Alliance North Bay field representative Chris Brown. "The campaigns that opposed the transportation measures focused on the notion that you couldn't trust supervisors to spend the revenue on the intended purpose, and voters responded."

Richard Gaines of the Citizens Against Wasting Millions--the loose-knit coalition of environmentalists and tax watchdogs that successfully opposed the sales tax measure--says county officials need to learn that voters simply won't support a regressive sales tax to fund transit improvements. "People don't want to see the sales tax as a way to fund transportation, since highways have been traditionally funded through the gas tax since the Eisenhower administration," says Gaines. "People don't want to get taxed on toilet paper to get highway fixes."

So what's next? Sonoma County Supervisor Paul Kelley says the county board will consider placing a binding sales tax measure on a ballot sometime in the future. "We're going to get as much state and federal funding as possible and try to analyze what's happened here [in the election]," he says. "I understand the reluctance of the public to pay a big sales tax increase when they're already paying a big gas tax.

"This result means it's practically impossible to get a commuter rail system up and running at this point."

Kortum suggests that county officials will have to resolve themselves to finding multiple sources of funding, including a proposed Bay Area-wide special gas tax that could be used for highway changes and rail, toll lanes in the Novato Narrows area, and maybe a 1/4-cent sales tax increase.

ONE THING most conservationists on both sides of the Measures B and C debate agree on is that they will rally to push jointly for an even more ambitious passenger-rail service. "What we really need to do is get a coalition on high-speed rail and make sure the funding comes from the gas tax," says Gaines. "If this country wants to compete with Europe and with efficient rail systems, we need to be competitive. We need a campaign to increase the federal and state gas tax to a responsible level and fund high-speed rail."

If the local rail plan is scrapped altogether, the county stands to lose $28 million in state transportation funds earmarked for a passenger train. "We would need a rail plan by January 2000 that would provide for a start-up within three years and specify funding sources and timetables," explains rail advocate Lionel Gambill, adding that state and federal rail funds will be made available locally only if the county kicks in additional revenue.

"The big question is whether there's any way we'll be able to get enough [local funding] to be classified as a self-help county," says Gambill. "If not, we won't get federal or state funds, period. We're could be left out in the cold, and we don't really have anything to fall back on."

Gaines wants the county to get busy right away on a two-track, high-speed passenger-rail service that could feed into a similar statewide system planned for the next decade. Greenbelt Alliance, which remained neutral on the Sonoma County transit measures but backed their Marin counterparts, plans to start working in the next few weeks with environmentalists on both sides of the Measures B and C debate to see if there is support for a more ambitious rail plan.

"There is a lot of energy here," says urban planner Laura Hall, who helped organize opposition to the local ballot measures. "We are ready to move forward with the people who have been working on [passenger rail] for years. I believe that we can come forward with a rail system that is more effective than the one proposed in Measure B.

"We can make it work."

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From the November 5-11, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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