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SMART considers $12 fare for ride from Santa Rosa to San Rafael

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Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit appears to be homing in on a base fare of between $4 and $6 to ride the rail line once service debuts later this year, with additional costs tacked on the farther one travels.

Under current proposals, it would cost $12 to ride the entire 43-mile route from north Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael. That amount includes the base fare plus an additional charge of up to $2 for each zone. The service initially will include five zones — three in Sonoma County and two in Marin, with some overlap at the county line.

SMART staff said the fare structure, which will be taken up by the agency’s board of directors today in Petaluma, would meet the target of generating $5 million annually in fare revenue. That’s based on a number of assumptions, including ridership estimates.

The rail agency is seeking a balance between charging what the market will bear and not over-pricing the service to the point of turning potential customers away. SMART staffers have presented more than 20 fare options for consideration by the board, all within a base fare range of $1 to $6.

The rail agency has until June 15 to finalize the initial fare structure.

More than half of respondents in a 2014 phone survey conducted by SMART said the maximum they would be willing to pay for a one-way trip would be $5. The hypothetical trips presented for the survey included from Santa Rosa to San Rafael and from Petaluma to San Rafael.

The current fare proposal is based on daily ridership estimates of 3,070 and about 300 on each weekend day. The agency estimates that 61 percent of riders will travel through two or three zones.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the SMART board, said the rail agency should focus on making the fares competitive rather than on ridership estimates.

“Ridership assumptions are just that,” he said. “There’s a pretty good margin of error there.”

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, did not respond to several requests for an interview.

SMART will only accept fare payment using the all-in-one card known as the Clipper card, which is used on Petaluma Transit, Santa Rosa CityBus and Sonoma County Transit, as well as on Golden Gate Transit buses and ferries.

The Clipper service automatically calculates the cost of a fare, including discounts and transfers. Riders use the card by pressing it against scanners on buses and eventually at vending machines on SMART train station platforms.

Riders who use Clipper-enabled North Bay transit systems to get to the train would get a break of between 75 cents and $1.50. For example, a Sonoma County Transit rider who holds an adult monthly pass on his Clipper card can ride from anywhere to SMART and receive a $1.50 transfer credit on his train trip.

Sonoma County Transit, which also uses a zone fare system, charges an adult fare of $3.90 for a 40 to 50-mile trip between Cloverdale and Rohnert Park/Petaluma. The flat-fare bus systems, including Santa Rosa CityBus and Petaluma Transit, charge a one-way adult fare of between $1.50 and $2.

SMART staff also calculated the costs of driving along Highway 101 using the federal government’s standard mileage rate of 54 cents per mile. Under that formula, the cost to drive 70 miles from Cloverdale to Larkspur is $37.80.

SMART is planning to extend the rail line to Larkspur by 2018 and to Cloverdale at a future date.

The proposed fares also include discounts for youth, seniors and the disabled.

The agency will offer two types of passes at the debut of the service, including one allowing riders to travel for free once they’ve maxed out on a daily travel rate. The staff recommends that rate should be twice the one-way trip maximum.

The SMART EcoPass, geared toward employers, schools, social service providers and other institutions, offers significant discounts for an up-front annual fee. A company that purchased up to 50 passes for their employees would get a discount of 23 percent on the total cost, with steeper discounts tied to a greater number of passes. College students enrolled in one of the participating institutions will receive a 50 percent discount on fares.

SMART staff said technical limitations with the Clipper program prevent the rail line from offering monthly passes or zone-specific transit passes.

SMART officials argue there’s value in the speed and comfort of riding the rails, versus being stuck in vehicle traffic.

The rail agency estimates it will take 49 minutes to travel from Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to the Marin Civic Center during commute hours, versus 60 to 90 minutes by car.

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