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SMART selects David Rabbitt as chair, plans steps for ‘brighter’ future

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt was selected Wednesday by his fellow SMART directors to lead the 12-member body that oversees the North Bay’s passenger rail line, handing him a two-year term as chair amid a pivotal time for the system’s near future and long-term viability.

Rabbitt, a SMART director for eight years and supervisor for the past decade, was chosen in a 10-0 vote during the first board meeting of the year. The board also unanimously appointed Barbara Pahre for another term as vice chair. Pahre, a Golden Gate Bridge District board member representing Napa County, has served in the role with SMART four times before, including over the past two years.

Rabbitt is the 12th person to chair SMART, and though he has held the same position three times before in his county role, it is his first time in board leadership with the transit agency.

“It is kind of ironic how we’re meeting today, on Inauguration Day. It’s almost like New Year’s all over again, and there really is an optimism in the air,” Rabbitt said Wednesday during the board’s virtual meeting, just hours after President Joe Biden was sworn into office at the U.S. Capitol. “I think it’s timely that we continue that, especially for this organization. Things will be brighter, not just in Washington, D.C., but as we hopefully soon turn the corner on COVID and we actually one of these days get back to meet in person and our ridership returns and flourishes.”

SMART, like public transit agencies throughout the nation, has an uphill battle ahead as it tries to restore ridership that has dropped sharply amid the coronavirus pandemic and resulting changes in work-life and travel.

Later this year, SMART also aims to wrap up work geared to the extension of passenger service to Windsor and begin overseeing freight service after the state helped the agency buy out the lone commercial operator in the region.

The $653 million train system, operating now on a 45-mile line from north Santa Rosa to Larkspur, has overcome myriad political and financial challenges, including some dating well before its launch in August 2017. But it may now face its greatest obstacle in rebuilding ridership between Sonoma and Marin counties, with ferry connection to San Francisco.

SMART is planning a ridership campaign that could include incentives for prospective passengers, with rollout timed as early as this spring, once more coronavirus vaccines have been administered and residents begin to return to workplaces, school and leisure travel.

“With the vaccine, that should bring new life back to the United States and the whole world. We are getting ready for going back to (the) new normal, so we want to get ready,” SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian told the board Wednesday.

At SMART’s peak in February 2020, the system was averaging about 3,000 passengers on weekdays. Within weeks of the pandemic’s hit, it halved weekday trains to 16 and ended weekend service. Its average daily ridership in December was 337 passengers, according to the agency’s most recent available data.

Board members have been discussing a return to a 26-train weekday commuter schedule with limited weekend service once ridership warrants.

Those decisions, however, will largely depend upon available funds and ensuring the agency maintains a lean operation while working to regain fare box revenues. Sales tax revenues that constitute the main source of operational funds have so far outperformed projections, but the agency will need to watch its books closely, SMART officials said.

“This is going to take us six months before we can ever put a real dollar toward anything. Patience is going to be a virtue for all of us,” Pahre said. “We get caught so many times setting up expectations that we can’t deliver, and I think that comes back and hits us in the face. I think we need to be reasonable and not get too excited until we think there’s an honest end in sight, and then I’m on board. Anything we can do to get the riders that haven’t been with us back.”

SMART recently slashed $7 million in expenses through June, equating to about 20% of its operating budget, through route reductions, a handful of job cuts and ending onboard internet access for passengers. It also trimmed about $3.5 million in annual debt costs by refinancing bond payments tied to construction of its initial operating line. The agency benefited from almost $15 million in emergency federal stimulus funding, and SMART officials expect to secure additional funding from the most recent federal aid package, though a total won’t be firmed up until at least later this month.

The agency continues to eye a sales tax renewal to fund the system beyond 2029, when the current quarter-cent measure expires. An attempt last March to extend the tax 30 years fell 13 points short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, and the agency is strategizing when and how to return to voters.

Even with a renewed tax, SMART still would not have the estimated $364 million in capital funds needed to extend the line north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale to complete its planned 70-mile system. A promised bike-and-pedestrian pathway next to the rail line also sits only a third complete and in need of an estimated $79 million to close gaps and connect the 24 miles of existing segments.

Under Rabbitt and Pahre’s leadership, SMART will begin at its Feb. 3 meeting crafting a new capital funding plan, the next year’s budget and setting the agency’s direction for the first half of the year.

“Happy New Year,” Mansourian told the board. “A lot of good and challenging items before you in 2021.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to correct the average number of weekday passengers at its peak in February 2020, and its average weekday ridership in December 2020.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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