SMART confronts debate over fares set for North Bay rail service
Green and gray commuter trains are making near-daily practice runs on the 43-mile line stretching from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, where passenger service will resume at the end of this year following a half-century absence.
Of the crucial decisions that directors overseeing Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit have faced since voters in the two counties approved commuter rail service in 2008, perhaps none has been so controversial as the fares established for riders last month.
In a 9-2 vote at the end of a three-hour meeting June 1 at SMART's Petaluma headquarters, the agency's directors authorized base and zone fares that add up to a $9.50 one-way trip from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, or $19 round-trip.
Discounts will offer lower fares for youth, seniors, veterans, college students and disabled riders, as well as commuters who get their tickets in bulk through employers. And SMART officials say the largest share of their estimated 3,000 daily riders will make short trips, resulting in lower overall tolls.
Still, in the days after the decision, rail officials have faced considerable backlash from North Bay residents concerned the fares are too high. The decision, critics say, came with little public input.
“Clearly, we made a number of people very unhappy,” said Jake Mackenzie, a SMART director and vice mayor of Rohnert Park who voted with the board majority.
Mackenzie and fellow board members who voted for the fares, along with SMART staff, say the fares are affordable and fair. They argue the fares will protect the rail agency's reserves that could aid in the event of unforeseen costs, such as rail accidents.
“We have to be very careful,” said Carol Russell, a SMART director and Cloverdale city councilwoman. “We have to look at the worst-case scenario and what most likely will be our costs.”
But critics say the fares are too expensive and won't entice the North Bay commuters who drive solo - SMART's primary targeted customer base. Some also argue the charges are an affront to the financial sacrifices taxpayers in the two counties have made, and will continue to make, through the quarter-cent sales tax that supports the rail line through at least 2029.
“We failed miserably,” said SMART director Shirlee Zane, who joined fellow Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt in voting against the approved fares. “What we've done, in effect - and I want to be clear, I didn't vote for this - by approving these very high fares, the public has said, ‘We've been paying for this train for eight years. It's public transportation, and now you're going to turn around and charge us these really outrageous fares?'?”
At stake in the decision is the initial public reception of a passenger rail line years in the making at a cost of more than $428 million. For vocal supporters, SMART is championed as a prime alternative to often-gridlocked Highway 101, but to detractors - including those who tried to stop the line in a failed 2012 referendum that never made it to the ballot - the rail line still smacks as a potential transit boondoggle.
For those overseeing the agency, the fare dilemma presents the stark challenge of setting rates high enough to generate revenue needed to support the rail line, but not so high that people stay away. Set fares too low, and the agency could forgo potential revenue or face the prospect of abruptly raising rates or reducing service.
SMART officials insist they have come about as close as they can, given financial projections that rely heavily on educated assumptions about ridership, to locating the sweet spot. A dollar or less separates the fares advocated by Rabbitt and Zane and what the majority on the board ultimately approved.
“Nine board members, with one absent, thought this was the fair thing to do,” said Judy Arnold, chairwoman of the 12-member SMART board and a Marin County supervisor.
Many surprised at fares
The fare debate has stretched nearly a decade, but in recent weeks gathered steam as the rail line prepares to debut passenger service in December. SMART has conducted polling to gather public feedback on fares and, on May 18, directors held a three-hour workshop on the fares during their regularly scheduled meeting in Petaluma. Two weeks later, they formally adopted the pay structure. Still, the June 1 vote took many by surprise.
At that meeting SMART officials presented more than 50 different fare combinations ranging from as little as $1 in base and zone fares, to a high of $6 for base fares and $3 for each additional zone. The option adopted by the board majority - a $3.50 base fare and $2 charge for each zone line crossed - equates to an average overall fare of $5.25 with discounts factored in. Without discounts, the average fare is $7.50.