SMART sees strong passenger numbers in first week of paid service

SMART reported roughly 2,500 to 2,900 daily riders Monday through Thursday. Full fares kick in Tuesday.|

The first six days of paid operations for the North Bay’s new passenger train saw weekday ridership that was shy of projections, but weekend traffic that far exceeded target numbers, according to preliminary figures provided Friday by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit.

Roughly 2,500 to 2,900 riders used SMART trains daily from Monday through Thursday this week, the agency reported. That level of ridership - under discounted fares in place through Labor Day - came close to the agency’s initial projection of 3,000 riders on weekdays, when the transit system runs 34 trips.

The first weekend of operations, meanwhile, saw about 2,000 daily passengers, far surpassing SMART initial projections of 300 daily riders on weekends.

The figures are not a complete accounting of SMART’s ridership because they were tallied manually by conductors who may not have been able to capture everyone getting on and off when trains were packed during peak commute times, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager. The numbers include round-trip passengers.

“I see a great beginning,” Mansourian said of the first six days of paid service. The train officially launched Friday with free rides. “I see a lot of happy comments, a lot of terrific comments, meaning ‘Hey, I’m going to take this five days a week’ ... People really tell us how much this is cutting down their commute.”

The figures show ridership increasing each day since Saturday, when 1,932 passengers were counted. On Thursday, the last full day for which numbers were available, 2,860 riders were counted.

Mansourian voiced confidence the agency would see at least a similar level of ridership after full-price fares begin Sept. 5. Base fare is $3.50 and $2 each zone crossed, equating to an average overall fare of $7.50, or $5.25 with discounts.

“I’m not worried about anything - we’re giving people a fantastic option,” Mansourian said. “Things will level out. You’ll have a choice of sitting in your car and being stressed out, or siting here using the free WiFi and (drinking) a cup of coffee.”

The system experienced a minor hitch mid-afternoon Friday, when an engineer on a train carrying passengers reported an indicator light coming on. The agency stopped the train in downtown Santa Rosa and sent a replacement, delaying the passengers aboard that train but causing no other delays, said SMART spokeswoman Jeanne Mariani-Belding.

“With the heat, you have to be very careful, so we wanted to take all the necessary precautions,” she said.

SMART did not have figures available for the average length of rides during the first week. SMART’s average fare is based on a ride that crosses two zone lines. The current Santa Rosa-to-San Rafael system has five fare zones and 10 stations.

SMART officials are working on how to combine data from the line’s two ticketing systems - its mobile app, or eTicket, and the Clipper card used for SMART and other transit options - to get a more precise ridership count, Mansourian said.

He said it would take through October for “things to settle down and start becoming a more steady picture.”

One concern from riders so far has been a request for faster, more reliable Wi-Fi, Mansourian said. The agency also has taken a lot of questions about how to use Clipper cards, he said.

SMART operated its first week without the free shuttle connecting the system’s current southern terminus in San Rafael to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal. That route begins operating today, according to Golden Gate Transit.

Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge, chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors, said she commuted Wednesday from the Sonoma County Airport station to Petaluma, taking the train down at 9:49 a.m. and the 7:30 p.m. train back up. Both trains were full, she said.

“Some people were going to work, there were bicycles, there were many people just traveling to other cities to walk around and look,” Fudge said. “It was amazing, the chatter on the train and how happy people were.”

Fudge said she expected ridership would meet or even exceed the agency’s expectations, and she did not anticipate a big drop after the system starts charging full-price fares.

“The people that I saw riding are going to be regulars,” Fudge said. “The people that we talked to were figuring out how to make SMART a part of their life. And other people probably haven’t tried it yet but might next week as they hear their friends talking. It might not be the exact same people, but I think the numbers are going to rise.”

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