SMART board highlights gains in commuter ridership while contesting overall dip in second year
SMART board members on Wednesday sharply defended the North Bay rail line’s passenger numbers, touting gains in weekday ridership they said reflected the 28-month-old system’s growing popularity. At the same time, they rejected a recent analysis of passenger records by The Press Democrat that revealed overall ridership decreased in SMART’s second year.
The meeting marked the first time the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board met to publicly discuss detailed passenger data, including daily and weekly ridership, which had never before been disclosed by SMART until two weeks ago. The records were released after agency officials denied they kept such figures, which The Press Democrat sought for months to help evaluate the rail system’s use as SMART pitches an early sales-tax renewal to voters in March.
Agency staff presented an analysis that showed SMART’s ridership has only increased based on reviews of calendar and fiscal years. The hourlong presentation underscored the rise in weekday ridership — capturing the commuters SMART was launched to serve.
“I’m sort of tired of arguing over numbers. Anybody can slice and dice them any way they want,” said Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a two-time SMART board chairwoman. “The story here is that there’s been an upward trend in weekdays year over year in the 2½ years that we’ve been in service. That’s the story.”
The Press Democrat analysis showed for the first time that SMART ridership declined 2.2% in its second year of operations, which ended last August. The decrease was driven by lagging weekend use, which fell 30% from the first year, and continues to drop in the first three months of the agency’s third year of service.
SMART directors had never been publicly informed of a decline in ridership, and the staff presentation Wednesday emphasized two other ways of looking at the figures to show that ridership has only increased. Based on a fiscal year, SMART officials said ridership has increased by 12.7% in its second year. The calendar year comparison for the first two years of service does not correlate, because the full set of data for 2019 was not available. But agency projections show it anticipates an increase of 0.08%, or 540 riders for the year.
“I think my biggest takeaway and what I’m hearing here, and maybe still out in the community is, ‘Is ridership up or is ridership down?’ And what I take away is, it depends. It depends on the period of time you’re looking at,” said Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, who was selected Wednesday by his fellow board members as SMART’s next chairman.
The Press Democrat analyzed ridership figures by operational year in order to take in the longest span of SMART service, which launched in August 2017.
SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian has made it a point in his biweekly briefings to the board to cite overall ridership, which has only grown. It is now more than 1.7 million riders.
“As I have done every two weeks and every publicly televised meeting, your total ridership since we opened, till the end of December 2019,” he said.
Mansourian has not made himself available for an interview for the past month and would not take questions following the meeting Wednesday.
But Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said that overall number, while encouraging, does not reflect the detailed trends that SMART needs to identify to build and sustain ridership.