Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hear that lonesome whistle blow! PD spins the SMART EIR story

Looks like the establishment has decided the proposed Larkspur to Cloverdale commuter railway will be good for business.

The Press Democrat often speaks for the local economic and political machine, and the PD is not above distorting the news. One way the regional daily spins the news is by printing a fairly straight story, with a deceptive headline. Then it prints an editorial based on the spin, and its columnists echo the disinformation.

The November 22 headline, on page one of the Empire News section, was “Study finds support for rail“-- and then in smaller print, “SMART says counties will back passenger rail plan despite some increases in noise, traffic”.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) got $23 million from last year’s sales tax increase vote, so my first thought was the directors had spent some of it on a poll.

But in fact, the news story reported the release of the $4 million, 700-page Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the SMART project. The lead paragraphs said,

“Passenger rail service between Cloverdale and Larkspur could increase noise levels along 70 miles of track, boost traffic around rail stations and expose train cars and tracks to earthquake damage, according to a 700-page environmental impact report released Monday.

But officials with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit said the report is proof that commute patterns in Sonoma and Marin counties will support passenger rail and 4,800 people will eventually ride it every day.

‘It looks to me like our intuition in the beginning was right -- the impacts are going to be primarily noise from train horns, increased traffic in access areas to train sites,’ said SMART Chairman Bob Jehn. ‘I think the long-term benefits of having this train far outweigh the negatives. This (report) supports that.’”

The story summarized,

“The decades-old debate over local train service is expected to come to a head next fall when voters will again be asked to support a sales tax to subsidize the program. Voters in both counties have voted against taxing themselves to pay for rail service in the past.

If approved by a two-thirds majority in the two-county district, the quarter-cent sales tax would bring in approximately $660 million over 20 years. About $340 million would be spent to buy diesel train cars, rehabilitate 70 miles of aging track, rebuild trestles and bridges, and construct stations and a maintainence facility.

Operational costs could reach $10 million and $12 million annually, while ticket revenues are expected to bring in between $3 million and $4 million per year. An additional $1 million is earmarked for shuttle service and $1.7 million to insure and maintain the bike and pedestrian pathway.”

So the EIR didn’t say the public is for the SMART project, or will vote for another sales tax increase to build it. It was “officials” like SMART chair Bob Jehn, an insurance man who is Mayor of Cloverdale, who said it supported their “intuition” that the train was a good idea.

Five days later, the PD’s Sunday editorial said,

“A study has found that a long-awaited commuter rail line linking Sonoma and Marin counties is doable. The report for Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit found that an estimated 4,800 people would eventually ride the train each week day, bringing in between $3 million and $4 million in ticket revenue every year.”

“That's not enough to cover the cost of operating the system linking Cloverdale and Larkspur, but it would cover about 30 to 40 percent of operational costs which - for a public transit system - is not bad. Like most public transit systems, a SMART train would depend on some kind of public subsidy. That subsidy would be a quarter-cent sales tax that is expected to go up for a public vote next year. Such a tax would bring in about $660 million over 20 years for the operation of the rail line. About half of that would go toward upfront costs such as buying diesel train cars and fixing about 70 miles of track.”

The editorial was headlined, “Smart train/Study shows rail would work, but what does public think?” It concluded,

“In any event, the experts have had their say. It's now the public's turn. Submit your opinions to SMART, attention Lillian Hames, 4040 Civic Center Drive, Suite 200, San Rafael 94903.”

So the PD says the “experts” say the SMART train is “doable”, will attract riders, and will earn money. And the editor wants us to tell SMART what we think about it—presumably, based on the PD’s spin of the EIR findings.

Mind you, the editor didn’t ask us to actually read the EIR. And he didn’t say our comments will be part of the Final EIR, to be quoted as evidence that we support the project!

Gaye LeBaron’s Sunday column—which pointed out that Sonoma County is coming to look like Los Angeles—added,

“We're becoming real train fans, particularly since we discovered this Surfliner system that will take you all the way to San Diego -- if that's what you want. It's making its way north. … Can Salinas be far behind? And San Jose, and a connection to the Caltrain?

Well, we can dream, can't we? Just as we can hope that SMART's recent survey saying that most voters favor a North Coast rail system is not just wishful thinking.”

Did Gaye see a survey that found “most voters favor a North Coast rail system”? Or did she misunderstood the PD headline too, like I did at first?

Then Chris Coursey spent an entire Friday column (12/02) replying to letters to the editor that criticized SMART. He echoed the PD’s report that the train’s only impact would be noise:

“What's to like about a $4 million document that takes 700 pages to tell us, essentially, that a train rumbling though the middle of two counties is going to make a lot of noise? But many are using the release of the report to take shots at the very idea of the so-called SMART train. And most miss by a wide margin.”

I could live with the rumble of the wheels and the engine whistle. What frosts me is the Press Democrat’s claim that the $4 million, 700-page EIR says noise and a little station traffic will be the only impacts of the two-county commuter railway. Either the EIR is flagrantly inadequate, or the PD is covering up the railway’s obvious growth-inducing impact.

This voter agrees with the critics. I see yet another regressive sales tax increase taking $660 million out of our pockets over 20 years, against $80 million at most in fares. Those hypothetical 4,800 daily riders will get a $580 million subsidy.

If there’s an election next year, I’ll vote against wasting $660 million to encourage regional growth as far north as Cloverdale.


At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suggest you go to www.stopsmart.org to see many comments on the SMART EIR


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