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