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SMART Train Board Looks To Extend Sales Tax To Fund Transit System

CLOVERDALE (KPIX 5) -- At a meeting last week, the SMART transit board revealed that if it doesn't get a long-term extension of its sales tax hike, the agency will be broke in five years.

The budget issues raise a question: What that means to north Sonoma County towns that are still waiting for train service to reach them?

When the voters approved a sales tax hike in 2006, the SMART train was supposed to go all the way to Cloverdale at the northern end of Sonoma County.

Those residents are still waiting for it to arrive.

Cloverdale was so excited about the new train service that the town built a brand new station, only to have it sit empty for years as SMART spent its money on the line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.

But last week, the transit board was told the system would run out of funds in 2024 unless voters approve a 30-year sales tax extension. And that won't cover the cost of extending the train line north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

"In order to build out that final strip, we're going to have to get other funding sources, because we don't have the money right now," said Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, who sits on the SMART Board.

For its part, Healdsburg built a new downtown railroad crossing and is planning a large housing development near the tracks. But Naujokas says they'll have to find money elsewhere to get the train there. The sales tax measure they're proposing would only fund the current system.

When asked what he thought the chances were that Sonoma County voters would support the sales-tax extension, Healdsburg worker Jared Bellmore replied, "Probably not very likely."

Back in Cloverdale, the locals were hoping the train would bring tourists to revitalize what was once a resort town.

"I would vote for the tax to get the train here," said resident Brian Emmons. "But if they're saying they're not going to bring it here, I'll probably say no, I'm not going to vote for that."

"You got to be kidding me!" said Flora Stickels, who voted for the tax back in 2006.  "Why should we vote for it if it's not going to come this far? I've been waiting a long time now!"

But Naujokas says SMART will just have to be creative in finding someone else to pay for it and he hopes the voters will trust them when they head to the ballot box.

"We built it so far," he said.  "I'm confident that we'll figure out how to continue all the way to Healdsburg and then on to Cloverdale."

Naujokas admitted it would take more than just the sales tax revenue to fund the construction.

SMART is blaming the shortfall on the recession and a federal mandate to include a $50 million "smart control" system.  But those problems were known when the system was being built. Naujokas says he just found out about the agency's financial situation in the last few months.

SMART estimates it would cost about $370 million to extend the line all the way to Cloverdale as promised.

Naujokas says he's hoping the money will come from government entities as well as developers who would prosper if the train comes to town.

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