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SMART to expand service, slash fares to spur ridership as pandemic wanes

In an effort to jump start lagging ridership as the North Bay emerges from the pandemic, SMART next week will begin expanding its service schedule and significantly reduce fares through May 2022.

When COVID-19 hit last year, SMART halved weekday service to 16 trips and halted weekend service as daily ridership plummeted. Starting Monday, the agency will add four morning trips and six afternoon trips to its current weekday schedule. Saturday service will resume on May 29 with 12 trips.

Once the new trains start running on Monday, SMART will slash fares by over 40% for the next 12 months, as well as provide additional discounts for qualifying riders.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, the SMART board chair, said officials made the changes in response to listening sessions with passengers. They told the board they wanted more departure times and that current rates ― ranging from $3.50 to $11.50 per trip ― were not affordable for many commuters.

“When we set our fares originally, I walked away and thought they were higher than they should have been, so I’m really happy that we pulled them back,” Rabbitt said.

Weekday fares will drop to a $1.50 base price, plus another $1.50 for trips through each of the five travel zones along the 45-mile SMART line from Santa Rosa to Larkspur. Seniors, youth, low-income riders and passengers with disabilities can receive an added 50% discount rate starting at 75 cents.

Initially, the reduced fees and discounts will only be available through the SMART mobile app, since it will take until September to make them available using the Clipper card payment system, officials said.

Rabbitt said the SMART board could decide to make the reductions permanent, noting that the system’s voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax, rather than passenger fares, is the train’s major revenue source. He added the goal is to eventually return service to at least pre-pandemic levels of 38 weekday trips, up from 26 starting Monday.

Since SMART launched in 2017, critics have argued the $653 million system is costly and underutilized. In March 2020, voters dealt the train a stinging blow by rejecting an early sales tax renewal, touted by officials as a way to refinance construction debt while maintaining service and expanding north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

In the aftermath of the loss, SMART instead turned to a $160 million bond sale to help pay down some of its construction debt and launched a series of public meetings across Sonoma and Marin counties geared toward gathering a wider array of public meetings about its governance and operations.

The agency has also in the midst of a marked turnover in leadership, with a new board chair in Rabbitt, a new chief financial officer and its longtime general manager, Farhad Mansourian, a champion of the system but a foil for many critics, set to retire in August.

During the pandemic, daily ridership fell to just a few hundred passenger trips at its lowest point, down from about 3,000 weekday trips at its peak in February 2020. By March 2021, average ridership had crept up to around 430 trips per day, according to the agency’s most recent available data.

To help offset pandemic losses, SMART was forced to cut $7 million in expenses though June, amounting to about 20% of its operating budget. It has relied on nearly $17 million in federal emergency funds, and expects to receive more money from the American Rescue Plan stimulus passed in March.

Heather McKillop, SMART chief financial officer, said the agency needs $2.2 million a year in additional funding to return to full service for at least the next three years. Officials hope the yet-to-be determined sum from the American Rescue Plan will help cover that amount, which factors in the reduced fare rates, she said.

Even though many North Bay residents have stopped commuting as they’ve shifted to remote work during the pandemic, McKillop anticipated ridership will increase as life returns to normal. That’s in large part because SMART passengers tend to be teachers, health care workers and other “people who do things in the world,” she said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers, a SMART board member, agreed that demand would start to pick back up

“Even though have people are working from home, I think there’s still a huge desire and need for options that get people to and fro without sitting in that gridlock traffic,” Rogers said.

In addition to the lower fares, a new pass for unlimited rides during a single weekend day will be offered at $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, youth, passengers with disabilities, and low-income passengers.

And starting in September, SMART will offer 31-day pass for unlimited rides costing $135 for adults and $67.50 for seniors, youth, passengers with disabilities, and low-income passengers.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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