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SMART ridership declined in 2nd year, but weekday use growing, newly obtained records show

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SMART ridership, by the numbers

Overall ridership:

Year 1: 721,790

Year 2: 706,188

Year 3 (Sept./Oct./Nov.): 201,052

Bicyclists:

Year 1: 66,795

Year 2: 69,694

Year 3 (Sept./Oct./Nov.): 23,164

Busiest day of the week:

Wednesday, with average of 2,452 passengers

Second busiest day of week:

Friday, with average of 2,443

Busiest trains:

Saturday, with average of 108 passengers per train

Busiest day ever: 4,735 (Free Day, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018)

Busiest paid day ever: 3,045 (Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017)

Source: Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit

Ridership on the SMART train dropped 2.2% in its second year of service, but is slowly starting to recover, according to newly disclosed passenger data that provides unprecedented detail about use of the region’s $600 million commuter rail system.

Daily ridership figures show that just over 706,000 passengers rode Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit in its second year of operations, or 15,600 fewer than its inaugural year that began in summer 2017.

The data was obtained by The Press Democrat under the California Public Records Act after SMART repeatedly refused to release the figures, claiming the agency did not break out daily or weekly passenger totals commonly reported by other transit systems.

The decline in ridership during the second year of service stemmed from a 30% drop in weekend ridership. That slide has continued in the first three months of its third year, when weekend ridership fell another 7.4%, a Press Democrat analysis found.

However, the data shows that SMART is building ridership on weekdays, making progress toward one of its main objectives — providing an alternative for commuters driving to work on Highway 101. Weekday ridership rose 4.2% in the second year and was up another 4.2% in the first three months of the third year.

Until now, SMART has not provided any data to the public or its governing board showing any declines in ridership. SMART has only announced the total number of passengers who have boarded its trains since service started Aug. 25, 2017, a figure that increases every month and exceeded 1.6 million riders through November.

The second-year drop surprised members of the agency’s board of directors, who believed the rail system had been growing steadily based on total ridership figures provided at each board meeting by SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian.

“If our ridership has declined in the second year, then we should have a theory about that, or at least how we can move it in a positive direction,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has served on the SMART board for a decade.

Mansourian did not respond to repeated requests this week for an interview to discuss ridership trends or the data.

Zane suggested the decline in weekend ridership was not unusual for a new transit system. Weekends provide an opportunity for members of the public to try out the trains and see how their tax dollars are being spent.

“I do think that sometimes there’s a novelty behind it and a transit system does well initially,” Zane said. “But if we are on track and are increasing in these last three months, that’s a good thing.”

The daily ridership figures reveal the train’s average weekday passenger totals were previously overstated by Mansourian, who has been at the helm of the agency for eight years. In November, he told the Marin Independent Journal that on average the system carries about 2,800 riders each weekday. But the agency’s figures show it averaged roughly 2,300 passengers on weekdays during its first two years of service, according to a Press Democrat analysis of the data.

That discrepancy in figures amounts to a difference of more than 94,000 passengers each year, or nearly a sixth of SMART’s annual ridership. In an interview last month, Mansourian said that he would not go into detail about ridership until after the agency’s board received a presentation about the data at its Jan. 8 meeting.

SMART ridership, by the numbers

Overall ridership:

Year 1: 721,790

Year 2: 706,188

Year 3 (Sept./Oct./Nov.): 201,052

Bicyclists:

Year 1: 66,795

Year 2: 69,694

Year 3 (Sept./Oct./Nov.): 23,164

Busiest day of the week:

Wednesday, with average of 2,452 passengers

Second busiest day of week:

Friday, with average of 2,443

Busiest trains:

Saturday, with average of 108 passengers per train

Busiest day ever: 4,735 (Free Day, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018)

Busiest paid day ever: 3,045 (Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017)

Source: Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit

Since beginning passenger service, SMART has transported 2,800 daily passengers only two dozen times, including nine days where it allowed all passengers to ride trains for free, the data shows. Paid ridership hit an all-time high on a day in December 2017, when trains carried 3,045 passengers.

Average weekday ridership is far less than the numbers provided by Mansourian, according to the data released by SMART last week — and even lower in figures reported Dec. 20 to the agency by its own consultant.

An average of 2,040 people rode the typical weekday train, and about 800 each on Saturday and Sunday, according to Corey, Canapary & Galanis, a San Francisco market research firm hired by SMART in late 2018 to conduct quarterly passenger counts during the first nine months of 2019. The numbers had a margin of error of 10%.

SMART spokeswoman Julia Gonzalez said Mansourian’s stated average weekday ridership figure of 2,800 riders was an estimate. Agency staff had not had time to further analyze the data, she said in an email. Gonzalez also said the consultant’s numbers represented just one set of data and, in some cases, represented an undercount based on verified paid fares. SMART staff would continue to calibrate the two sets of information to provide the most accurate ridership data, she said.

The disclosure of ridership data comes at a critical moment for the rail agency. Voting begins next month on a ballot measure to extend its quarter-cent sales tax for another 30 years. The measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

SMART has said it needs the early extension to curb rising debt costs tied to construction of its initial 43-mile operating line from San Rafael to north of Santa Rosa. Without approval, SMART officials have warned they would be forced to make deep cuts to passenger service and the agency’s 200-person workforce in the next two years.

The slide in second-year ridership and Mansourian’s overestimate of weekday passenger numbers do not worry Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a longtime member of the SMART board. He said the drop-off mirrors ridership declines experienced by other public transit agencies across the Bay Area, and is just part of the process as the rail line gains traction and becomes a mainstay in the North Bay. A spokesman for the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission confirmed that BART and Caltrain, among others, have also reported drops in ridership.

“It doesn’t really concern me,” Rabbitt said. “I don’t think you can expect growth year over year and let that be the harbinger of whether it’s successful or not. It’s an asset within the county, and it’s going to grow over the course of time. For me, the future is bright for SMART going forward.”

But SMART critic Mike Arnold, a Novato financial consultant, said the numbers confirm his long-held assertion that the rail system is underperforming. He’s twice led campaigns against the sales tax that is SMART’s primary revenue stream, helping narrowly defeat a 2006 ballot measure to fund the agency before voters approved it with 70% support two years later.

Arnold, who is involved in an effort opposing Measure I, SMART’s early sales-tax renewal on the March ballot, said his analysis shows ridership is “essentially flat.” Off-peak trains continue to run nearly empty and at great cost to SMART and the taxpayers who subsidize it, he said.

“The only story you get out of it is they’re not running near capacity,” said Arnold. “Less than 2,500 riders on a typical weekday, and it’s designed for the commute. So it’s no wonder it’s had no impact on the (Highway 101) commute. It confirms what I’ve said for a long time: It’s a suburban rail system that does not serve a highly dense employment center where people can walk to their jobs. That’s the Achilles’ heel of the SMART system.”

SMART runs a mix of two- and three-car train sets, able to carry 318 and 477 passengers, respectively. Through November, its 2,378 average weekday ridership total would equate to an average of about 70 passengers per train, or between a fifth to a sixth of capacity.

SMART shifted to an expanded train schedule Thursday, moving from 34 to 36 daily trips along its now 45-mile line to help close several weekday gaps between trains. The new schedule will fully integrate the system’s new station in Larkspur, which opened Dec. 14 and connects passengers to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal serving San Francisco. Last month, SMART also opened a new station in downtown Novato.

Board members and train supporters hope the new additions mean more passengers during midday trips and the weekends, as well as the weekday peak commute hours. SMART officials have estimated that each new extension could bolster ridership by 5%, helping create a more sustainable transit system. The system’s ultimate goal is to provide a transportation alternative that benefits the entire region, not just riders, by easing congestion along the Highway 101 corridor and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle traffic.

“We have to have an alternative to the private automobile and more pavement, and it’s too early to say that we’ve failed to deliver it,” said Jack Swearengen, chairman of Friends of SMART, a citizens group that promotes regional commuter rail. “If we do approve refinancing their bond indebtedness, then we have at least a hope of a positive future. But to knock it in the knees right now would be the beginning of the end, because then (opponents) could say, ‘I told you so.’ I will continue to appeal to a global picture, that we must do something different than roadway transportation.”

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

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