These tough economic times make many of us think twice about what we're buying. This critical thinking is important as voters consider potential purchases like Measure Q, the 20-year sales tax increase proposed for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District (SMART).
Our priorities don't change just because our budgets are overextended, but in times like these, households and governments alike are challenged to use what limited funds we have as effectively as possible. Proponents of Measure Q say their diesel train plan will fight global warming and support "environmentally responsible" transportation. Voters need to decide not only whether the plan achieves the right goals, but whether it can deliver at the right price.
Evaluating the cost-effectiveness of greenhouse gas abatement projects is relatively simple. The standard approach is to calculate the cost of the project and divide it by the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are avoided as a result of the project. Measure Q proponents say the rail plan will cost $450 million in construction costs and an average of $19 million to operate each year, while it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 14,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. That's a cost of more than $2000 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, or $1357 per metric ton in operating expenses alone. These figures don't include construction of the bike path (incidentally, the part of the project that would be postponed if revenues run short) or debt service on bonds (roughly $8 million per year).
Thus, by proponents' own estimates, the train project would be at least 30 to 45 times more expensive than the most expensive greenhouse gas abatement projects being considered to meet current climate stabilization goals at state and national levels.
To put these costs in perspective, consider that in the nation's first mandatory cap-and-trade auction last month, allowances in the northeastern states' greenhouse gas regulatory program sold for $3 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. Voluntary offsets can be bought from popular vendors like TerraPass for $13 per ton. Permits in the European Union cap-and-trade program are currently about $30 per ton-the general price range that many analysts expect to see around the world as more industries enter into the market. Numerous studies show that the significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions sought at state and national levels can be achieved for less than $50 per ton. Hybrid electric cars and solar energy generation are notoriously pricey, but even so, these technologies are ten or 15 times more cost-effective than Measure Q.
The proposed tax increase is money is taken out of household budgets that can't be spent on proven, cost-saving energy conservation measures like home insulation or more efficient appliances. For many North Bay residents, the rising cost of living-exacerbated by higher sales taxes-makes the difference between renting or owning a home, between driving an old car or buying a newer, more fuel-efficient car, and between commuting long-distance or living near good jobs and schools. There's nothing "environmentally responsible" about that.
The train plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Sonoma and Marin counties by an estimated 0.2 percent below current levels. SMART proponents paint pictures of idyllic commutes with riders "checking the morning headlines as you sip your java," but the reality is that no transit system in the U.S. has persuaded more than 0.5 percent of drivers to take transit by adding rail service in recent decades. Rail proponents ask voters to approve a project that will cost more than $1 billion all told, for the promise of reducing peak-hour traffic congestion and overall greenhouse gas emissions by less than 1 percent.
Measure Q fails to meet reasonable cost standards for greenhouse gas abatement. Real environmental responsibility requires that we reject wishful thinking and wasteful spending and focus instead on proven, cost-effective measures.