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North Bay Voters Put Brakes On Sales Tax Extension To Fund SMART Train Service

NOVATO (KPIX 5) -- On Tuesday night, a measure to extend the quarter-cent sales tax funding the SMART commuter train only got about 50 percent of the vote. Measure I needed two-thirds of the vote to pass, so it was defeated.

But the same sales tax was approved back in 2008 with 70 percent voting yes. The question on Wednesday was, why the change of heart?

According to SMART, extending the sales tax for 30 years would have allowed them to refinance their debt, saving about $12 million a year. But now that it failed, the SMART Train system is looking at a big hole in its budget.

"It's certainly not where we wanted to be when we saw the results come in," said SMART Board Chairman Eric Lucan. "But we know the SMART train is resilient and it always has been resilient. We've faced defeats at the ballot box before. We've faced repeal efforts before, but the SMART train always bounces back."

By all accounts, those who ride the shiny new cars seem happy with the experience.

"I like it. I don't know why anyone wouldn't like it," said rider Vicki Cornelius.

So why would people be less likely to support it now that it's been up and running for two years? Some think the measure may have been the victim of tax fatigue. Resident Carolyn Cocchiarella voted no.

"They're in the billions. They're talking "B's" not "M's". They're insane. This is supposed to go on for 30 years? You're crazy!" she said.

Other voters may have had some trust issues, such as the people up in Healdsburg and Cloverdale who originally voted to build the train, but soon discovered there wasn't enough money to extend it up to them.

That influenced Mary McFadden's vote against the extension.

"Just the whole financial aspect of it," McFadden said. "It's just way out of the ballpark, for one thing. And then not going to where it was originally supposed to go."

Peter Serchia owns a soccer shop in Novato. He says he likes the train, but voted "no" because he just thinks it's too soon.

"It just started rolling and the ridership's up, so let's see what kind of revenue they can generate before they start trying to generate more taxes," said Serchia.

Kenny Reibel thinks trains don't come often enough and was disappointed to hear that the budget deficit will likely cause service cuts.

"You would think it would make it worse if they're going to cut back," he said.

But John Cornelius enjoys riding on SMART and said critics need to get some perspective on this.

"This train is built for 50 years from now, not today," he said. "If gas went to ten dollars a gallon tomorrow, there'd be a lot of people riding this train."

If the SMART train is resilient, so is the effort to raise money for it.  Board Chairman Lucan says it is not a question of if there will be another tax measure, but how soon?

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