SMART reports higher-than-expected ridership over first three weeks of paid service

The first three weeks of operation for the new commuter train showed the rail line has continued to attract weekend riders in far greater numbers than initially anticipated.|

The first three weeks of operation for the North Bay’s new commuter train showed the rail line has continued to attract weekend riders in far greater numbers than initially anticipated, while the concentration of passengers with bicycles is prompting SMART officials to ponder how they accommodate those commuters going forward.

Trains carried nearly 53,000 passengers in the weeks after paid service began Aug. 26, well beyond the roughly 46,800 passengers the agency projected for that period, Farhad Mansourian, general manager of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency said Wednesday.

More than 15,600 of those riders were on weekends, Mansourian told SMART board, whose members reacted with clear surprise. The agency’s early projections foresaw just 300 daily riders on weekends.

Mansourian, in an interview after the board meeting, said during weekdays, when up to 3,000 daily riders were projected, the agency so far sees “no pattern” for ridership.

“Some days are higher, some days are lower,” he said, declining to provide specifics. “Weekdays haven’t settled down yet.”

Mansourian said the data he presented ran from the start of paid service in late August - full fares kicked in Sept. 5 - through Tuesday, and was based on counts by train conductors as well as figures from Clipper Card and SMART’s mobile app - the two methods to pay for a train ride.

Board members also were surprised when Mansourian told them trains have carried a total of nearly 3,800 bicycles on board, with the greatest concentration falling on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Each of three most popular days saw more than 700 or 800 bicycles total, while Saturday and Sunday bike usage ranged from 100 to 200.

“I would have expected a lot higher number of bikes” on weekends, said Jake Mackenzie, Rohnert Park’s mayor and a SMART board member.

While cautioning that SMART will need to monitor the data over a longer period of time, Mansourian said the early data on bicycles may prompt some operational changes.

“We are now beginning to see a trend where we need to figure out how to accommodate the bicycles and the passengers at the same time competing for the same space,” Mansourian told board members. “For us, the fact that they are not using this (as much) on the weekend means they’re looking at the bike as a first- and last-mile solution. That’s what we’re seeing.”

SMART is examining various options and conducting community outreach to figure out how to best make room for more commuting bicyclists should trends continue, Mansourian said.

The issue was broached at the meeting by multiple community members, including Rick Coates of the citizens’ group Friends of SMART, who said he thought some trains were “almost overwhelmed” with bicycles.

“It’s compelling to hear people come and talk to us about the glitches,” said Barbara Pahre, a SMART board member and official with the Golden Gate transportation district. “Hopefully we’ll be patient enough to let the data collect a little bit more.”

“It’s a problem they need to solve,” Coates said after the meeting.

SMART’s revenue from passenger fares has totaled more than $242,000, besting its projection of $225,000 for the period, Mansourian told the board. The transit agency charged passengers discounted fares from Aug. 26 through Labor Day.

“The ridership has met what we projected, the revenue has met what we were budgeting for,” Mansourian said. “So far so good.”

The SMART board also took action Wednesday to advance the planned 2.2-mile extension from San Rafael to Larkspur, unanimously approving an $8.7 million contract amendment to cover signaling and communication systems for the key linkage that will connect the system more directly to the ferry serving San Francisco.

Bill Gamlen, SMART’s chief engineer, said the contract change covered work that was always planned for, describing it as “kind of the last piece” in the agency’s approval of the project. Overall, project is slated to cost more than $52 million.

Additionally, SMART directors unanimously approved the agency’s first union contract, which covers its 23 engineers and conductors. Those employees are in line for pay raises of roughly 10 percent, but they will receive no additional pay bumps over the life of the two-year contract, according to SMART.

Separately, directors unanimously approved a 3 percent pay raise for its 60 staff members who are not represented by any union. The agency is negotiating two other union contracts, Mansourian said.

And on Tuesday, the Santa Rosa City Council approved a pilot shuttle program to run between the downtown core and the SMART station. The service is planned to start about mid-October and aims to serve train riders who park in city garages and those who wish to reach downtown from the train station. The council allocated up to $141,000 for the shuttles through June 30, said Rachel Ede, acting deputy director for the city’s transit division. The contract with Dallas-based MV Transportation, which operates Santa Rosa Paratransit, allows for two one-year extensions.

Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed to this report. ?You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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