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SMART board highlights gains in commuter ridership while contesting overall dip in second year

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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.

“I love the big number, the 1.7 (million). At some point, that number is not that useful,” Rabbitt said.

“What we’re going to do with the data is what I’m more interested in,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, whose yearlong tenure as board chairman ended Wednesday. “The real question is, how can we provide a better service to our communities having that knowledge?”

Agency officials attributed the decline in weekend ridership to the devastating wildfires in 2017 and last year and a corresponding drop in tourism. But they highlighted the continued gains during weekdays, which account for 85% of ridership. Board members noted that comes before the opening of new stations in Larkspur and downtown Novato, as well as an expanded schedule, all of which they expect will buoy ridership.

“Regardless of what these numbers say, we’ve been sensing what the trends are and what people want and we’ve always been working on improving ridership,” Fudge said. “So I think we need to continually look at the whole picture and the big picture. If we dive down into these tiny details about one particular week and if we all try to analyze whatever someone is challenging on a week … you know, we really don’t have time for that.”

The disclosure of detailed ridership data and Wednesday’s discussion come at a pivotal time for SMART, which is asking for a 30-year renewal of its quarter-cent sales tax nearly a decade early. Without that extension, agency officials say they will be forced to slash SMART’s service and workforce.

“SMART will be forced to find other cuts to free up funds for debt service — cuts that would impact progress on the system,” Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold read from prepared remarks. “Just to name a few: Fewer trains during the day, reduced maintenance for bike paths, crippled ability to compete for outside funds to build additional stations and pathway.”

Jack Swearengen, chairman of Friends of SMART, a citizen group that promotes rail transit in the North Bay, said the train’s arrival has offered residents and tourists a climate friendly way to get from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. The system is set to extend to Windsor by the end of 2021, and eventually to Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

“The automobile is self- limiting. It’s reached its capacity to move people and goods, and we know that,” Swearengen said. “But there are some people who are living in denial and saying, ‘No, no, we can keep on doing what we’ve always done.’ ”

Napa resident Mike Setty, who said he has decades of experience in transit planning, said SMART needed to improve on future releases of ridership data — allowing the public to evaluate the health of a taxpayer-funded system, before they decide on the upcoming ballot measure.

“I think you need to show some ridership increases sooner,” he said. “You need to see what the numbers are by February, and you can’t wait until after the first meeting in March.”

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

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