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SMART to consider new discount fare programs for low-income riders

SMART will consider seeking admission to a new regional program that will test the impact of discounted fares for low-income commuters, part of a plan to boost ridership by cutting the price of tickets in half for some passengers.

The program is set to launch this spring with four Bay Area transit operators, providing half-price tickets to qualifying riders on Golden Gate Transit buses and ferries and San Francisco’s Muni system, and 20% off BART and Caltrain trips.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit has signaled interest in joining the Clipper START program, which will begin as an 18-month pilot. On Wednesday, the 12-member SMART board will vote on whether to apply for admission in the program if it is extended by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission beyond the trial period.

SMART would seek funding from MTC to reimburse it for the cost of providing half-price discounts to individuals who make less than $25,000 annually, or about $50,000 for families of four, according to an agency spokeswoman.

“To me, it’s a social justice issue,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year member of the SMART board. “Our duty as a board and as operators is to ensure everybody who wants to is able to take the train and able to afford to, so it has to be significantly less for those people who qualify. We need to give every opportunity for the public regardless of income level to use public transit.”

SMART, which charges $11.50 for a one-way regular ticket on its 45-mile line, has long received criticism over its pricing. A majority of riders travel between three fare zones — for instance, Petaluma to either San Rafael or Larkspur — and pay $7.50 per ride, or $15 for a round trip, according to past agency surveys.

However, more than half of SMART’s riders take advantage of other discounts, such as half-price rides for seniors, children between 5 and 18 years of age (kids under 5 are free) or individuals with a disability. People who frequent the train can also buy monthly passes with unlimited rides for $200, and employers, military veterans and college students have access to flat-rate passes on a sliding scale. About 650 people each month use one of the two pass options, said the SMART spokeswoman.

SMART and Santa Rosa Junior College, for example, have an agreement in place where the school buys at least 70 semesterlong passes for its students based on demand and sells them for $260 each, or about half what the college pays for them. SMART is seeking ways to expand the program, including potential grants to subsidize the school’s “eco passes” to become even more attractive to students at the college’s Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses, said Robert Ethington, SRJC’s dean of students.

Each weekday, SMART currently averages about 2,400 passengers - a number of whom are counted twice because they take the train both directions. The agency’s board of directors has been working to increase that number, allowing children to ride for free with a paid adult fare this past summer and offering a new $12 combination ticket with the Golden Gate Ferry to and from San Francisco after the extension of service to Larkspur in December.

Still, board members have said they continue to hear from residents in both Sonoma and Marin counties who don’t use the 29-month-old system because it costs too much to ride.

The board last year expressed an interest in reevaluating the train’s fare structure before accepting General Manager Farhad Mansourian’s recommendation to do so in early 2020 once the new Larkspur station was running.

Cheaper rides might also help convince some voters to support SMART’s sales tax extension on the March ballot, because they would view the system as more accessible, and therefore more useful.

Chris Coursey, a former SMART spokesman and Zane’s challenger in the March District 3 supervisor race, said he agrees that accounting for the region’s lower-income residents is critical to making the commuter rail system work.

The new discounted Clipper program, which would be open to other transit operators as soon as 2022, could help accomplish that, he said.

“I felt like SMART fares were too high from the beginning,” said Coursey, who is a former mayor of Santa Rosa. “SMART’s fares are a barrier to a lot of people using the system, and the more people who use it the better. I would like to see fares that are affordable to a greater percentage of our population.”

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

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