SMART Train, Foolish Board

Rail Crossing WayIt seems so simple: sell the public on a transit system and keep them from turning against it.  It’s been done before in countless projects across the country, from Norfolk, VA’s Tide light rail to Los Angeles’ 30/10 plan.  Even in Marin, the SMART plan was approved by 70% of the population.  Yet whatever political savvy the SMART Board possessed seems to have evaporated with success, leading to a drumbeat of bad news and setbacks compounded by the Board’s bumbling responses.  Now, a repeal push threatens the entire project.

That effort, spearheaded by a grassroots organization under the name RepealSMART, is gathering signatures for a measure to repeal the ¼ cent sales tax that is funding the train.  Despite their name, the organizers say they don’t want to repeal the project but rather want to give voters a chance to vote on the current business plan.  This is ridiculous on its face, as the name of the organization calls for repeal and its website is explicitly hostile to the idea of rail transit.

Yet rather than publicly treating RepealSMART as a distraction and quietly buffing its own image, the SMART Board declared all-out war.  In defiance of the Secretary of State, the Board declared itself the governing electoral body of the repeal effort.  This arrogance elevated RepealSMART to the level of a large, organized resistance when, in actual fact, it was not.  It perfectly plays into opponents’ narratives, and the Board looks like the bad guy while opponents look like the scrappy underdogs.

This is only the most recent bit of political blindness on the Board’s part.  Since the collapse of funding in 2008, the Board has issued three Initial Operating Segment plans without any public input that damaged their reputation; forced out their General Manager; hired a new General Manager who, while perfectly capable, has no rail experience; and awarded this GM far more than the originally offered salary.

It is shocking that a board consisting of elected local politicians can have such poor political sense, and it is infuriating to me and other supporters that this trend shows no sign of stopping.  The repeal effort would not be nearly as strong as it is if the Board had behaved with public perception in mind when facing the project’s challenges.

The Board’s political incompetence threatens to bury the rail project despite its vital importance to the North Bay.  SMART needs to be saved from itself, but there is little sign the Board even realizes it.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

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