SMART withholds daily and weekly ridership records as train seats go unfilled

The stance raises questions about SMART’s commitment to transparency at a politically crucial time for the commuter rail system, in the run-up to the March vote on its early tax renewal.|

As part of its effort to rally voter support for an early sales-tax extension that would stabilize its finances, SMART has regularly touted figures showing overall ridership, which last month surpassed 1.6 million passengers.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency has routinely submitted monthly figures to a national transportation database since it started service in August 2017.

But how full are its trains each day? SMART has repeatedly declined to release daily and weekly ridership figures that would give the public a better gauge of how successful the North Bay's commuter line has been, showing, for instance, who is riding the train and when they are hopping aboard during the week.

Over the past four months, SMART officials have refused to provide The Press Democrat with the more detailed ridership data - information that other public transit agencies including BART and Golden Gate Transit routinely share.

SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian rejected the newspaper's latest request last week during an interview after the SMART board's regular meeting. He suggested that SMART's short history of operations had not prepared it for the release of such data, which he described as “complicated,” partly because of the various ways passengers buy tickets and board trains.

“We're still figuring out who needs what kind of information when,” said Mansourian, who said he would not reveal daily and weekly ridership until he discussed it first with his board. “This is a very complicated presentation. I won't get into ridership until you go through that presentation.”

The stance raises questions about SMART's commitment to transparency at a politically crucial time for the agency, in the run-up to the March vote on its ballot measure, which needs a two-thirds majority in the two counties to pass. The measure would guarantee SMART tens of millions of dollars each year in public subsidies for another 30 years by extending to 2059 its quarter-cent sales tax, which covers most of its operations.

The start of service to the Larkspur terminal at week's end - one of the system's biggest accomplishments - is expected to grow ridership with improved rail-to-ferry access and could burnish its chances at the ballot box.

But even some of SMART's most ardent supporters recognize that withholding key data about ridership does the agency no favors and plays into the hands of SMART's critics, who say it frequently lacks candor in the way it discloses significant information about operations.

“I don't disagree that this doesn't appear transparent. As a public entity, you're public,” said SMART board member and Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt. “It would be helpful as a board member to understand the peaks and valleys of ridership going forward. Whatever that interval is, if it's in the possession of SMART, it should be made available to whomever asks for it.”

Just last month, SMART denied a Nov. 5 Press Democrat request that sought more expansive ridership data. In its Nov. 15 response, SMART officials directed the newspaper to the national transportation database for monthly numbers.

In the newspaper's follow-up request on Nov. 18 seeking daily and weekly ridership totals only, SMART's public records coordinator responded with a Nov. 27 letter listing potential exemptions that could apply and said SMART may have some of the information available, but did not state if the agency would comply with the request or deny it and explain why, as required by state law.

Subsequent emails to the public records coordinator asking for clarification have gone unanswered.

“They haven't done either of those things - give you the records or give a written denial with an explanation why withholding them is justified,” said David Snyder, a lawyer who heads the San Rafael- based First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit that specializes in matters of open government and free speech. “I just don't see any basis under California law to withhold that information. The numbers are bad is my guess and they don't want to share those.”

Only part of the picture

The daily and weekly passenger figures serve as prime indicators of how SMART ridership has evolved since 2017. Where it is released by other transit operators, the data can be used to evaluate the strength of weekday versus weekend ridership and to gain a more detailed understanding of how daily and weekly use fluctuates over time and with changes in service.

The figures also would serve to test two of SMART's chief objectives even before it gained voter approval in 2008: Officials and supporters have consistently promoted its ability to ease congestion along the Highway 101 corridor and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicle traffic in the process. But SMART has yet to release any study of either metric - and it has been unwilling to furnish the data that would allow others to evaluate those claims.

Some of SMART's daily and weekly ridership information is available through the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which manages the region's Clipper Card fare system. SMART is one of the 22 transit agencies that accepts Clipper, in addition to its own smartphone ticketing app and monthly and discounted employer passes.

Riders using Clipper Cards to board SMART trains account for about three-quarters of the system's total riders, according to the MTC.

Two years of that data, obtained last week through an email request to a MTC spokesman, show that SMART carries more people on weekdays than weekends, according to aggregated passenger totals. But most of its cars are more crowded on weekends, when the system runs fewer trains.

The system sees roughly 1,850 Clipper Card users per weekday and 610 on each Saturday and Sunday, meaning SMART's weekend day numbers each represent about a third of the typical weekday, when more extensive service is offered.

However, averaged across the number of daily routes - 34 on the weekdays and 10 on Saturdays and Sundays - SMART sees just 55 riders per train who use a Clipper Card each weekday and 61 per train each weekend day, according to the MTC.

SMART runs a mix of two- and three-car train sets, able to carry about 300 and 450 passengers, respectively, at one time. The MTC and Clipper Card ridership figures suggest that more than 70% of those seats have remained empty, on average, on any given train over the past two years.

Mansourian told the Marin Independent Journal last month that SMART averages about 2,800 passengers per weekday and 850 each Saturday and Sunday. Those totals would equate to 816,000 passengers this year - about 105,000 more riders in 2019 would be projected under the monthly figures that SMART submits to the national transportation database.

The discrepancies cannot be further vetted without wider access to SMART's daily and weekly ridership data. Two public records requests for additional ridership data filed by the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, a Marin County-based advocacy group, also were denied this fall, according to the group.

“The two key performance metrics are ridership and the cost of providing transit services,” said Novato resident Mike Arnold, a financial consultant who has been one of SMART's sharpest critics. “That's the essence of it. Shouldn't they provide the public some information to evaluate whether that's a worthy tax to commit to?”

Other Bay Area transit agencies, including Golden Gate Transit bus and ferry services, Caltrain and BART, confirmed that they provide daily and weekly ridership data upon request.

“We're a public agency and a steward of toll and transit fare dollars, and it's important for the public to know how those dollars are being spent and … how many people they're serving,” said Paolo Cosulich-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Golden Gate Bridge District. “There are also public records laws and policies that we are happy to abide by, so we make sure that the information that the public and the media want and need, especially around ridership and how we're performing, is available to them.”

BART, which operates in San Francisco and the East Bay and plans to extend service to the South Bay sometime next year, even offers on its website some hourly ridership data and additional stats dating to 1973, about when it started service.

“Public ridership reports provide valuable information to many of our stakeholders,” Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for BART, said in an email. “It provides our riders transparency as it relates to where we direct our limited funds. It can be used for informed urban planning by not just BART staff and our board of directors, but also regional elected officials and their staff and the communities we serve.”

Board members respond

But Mansourian said SMART is different, noting that BART and many of the region's public transit agencies have been operating for decades, while SMART remains in its infancy. It remains in the process of establishing which data points are important to the public and its 12-member board, he said. He would not say whether he has access to daily or weekly counts, nor how SMART maintains its ridership records, and denied that the agency has something to hide.

“This is really not a mystery or a conspiracy theory that everybody's trying to chase, like we make up some of these numbers that nobody knows where they came from,” Mansourian said in the interview last week. He acknowledged the agency was responsible for giving the public access to information that would assist voters in making a decision about the ballot measure.

He would not commit to providing ridership records sought by The Press Democrat before the rail agency hosts an open study session for the SMART board scheduled early next year meant to discuss ridership.

“Voters should get any information that we have. No question about it, because we work for them,” Mansourian said. “That's what we're going to show them on Jan. 8.

“We'll walk you through the process, we'll walk you through our limitations and our challenges, and then they are what they are. We'll put this in a public forum so everybody can say what they want.”

In interviews, several SMART board members say they believe the data would help improve their decision-making and how to boost ridership and improve the system overall.

“For me, this is not even related to the ballot measure. This is just good governance from a public agency that's funded by taxpayer dollars,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers, who joined the SMART board earlier this year. “It will better inform us and the public, particularly when we do things like pilot projects geared toward increasing ridership. It would be very valuable to all of us to have understanding of that (total) number and to have some consistency with how that number is reported.”

The agency faces its biggest political test since 2008 next year, and refusing to release detailed ridership data won't aid that campaign, board members acknowledged.

“Government transparency is really important,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year SMART board member. “We're at a very low point right now in our history in terms of voter confidence in government agencies, so it behooves all of us to increase transparency and raise trust any way that we can from the public. There's no reason to not be fully transparent with these numbers.”

Mansourian declined to respond to comments made by board members to The Press Democrat, saying that as a matter of policy he does not speak publicly about statements by SMART directors that he has not heard firsthand.

SMART board member Joe Naujokas, a Healdsburg councilman, called on the public to recognize the greater context of the agency's main objective during its first 11 years - constructing the line. He likened SMART to a startup company just coming out of its early stages. Now it can turn toward meeting other needs, including releasing more ridership data as the agency grows with experience.

“We are a super-young transit agency. The primary focus of the agency has been to build out a safe, effective mode of transportation,” said Naujokas, who is finishing his first year on the board. “Now that we've stabilized, our focus is on learning our lesson. The concern of voters is valid, and they want to know how the system is performing. The board raised an important question and we're going to address it. It's an important conversation, so we're going to have it.”

Election approaching

With just over 80 days until the March primary election, and with mail-in ballots arriving to most voters as early as the beginning of February, time is not on SMART's side to assure voters that the system is transparent about its ridership numbers.

The campaign in favor of the ballot measure is still “barely off the ground,” according to San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, SMART's outgoing board chairman. Advertising materials began hitting mailboxes in Sonoma and Marin counties this week.

Campaign representatives have been tight-lipped about the pitch to voters or the extent of fundraising. The first campaign finance reporting period for the March election does not close until Jan. 31.

For his part, Phillips said SMART's ridership to date isn't so critical because the early tax renewal is focused on the agency's long-term financial security. But the public should not be denied access to SMART ridership data if they want it, he said.

Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, co-chairman of the SMART campaign committee, did not return calls last week and this week seeking comment about ridership data and SMART's approach to the March election. In an interview last month, Lucan - who is likely to be named SMART's next board chairman come January - said he was unsure that studies of SMART's effect on Highway 101 traffic and related carbon emissions were worth the expense.

Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, SMART's prior chairwoman and one of the board's longest-serving members, did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

Rabbitt, also a co-chairman of SMART's campaign committee, said he was unfamiliar with how the rail agency collects ridership data. He said he emailed Mansourian last week to ask why at board meetings SMART staff has not routinely released passenger numbers in increments similar to the way they are reported to the Golden Gate Bridge District, where he serves as a board member.

Mansourian's reply came the next day that the board will receive a report on ridership data soon.

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

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