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As the North Bay’s commuter rail line moves into its second year of operation, transit officials overseeing its expansion say they must confront a range of challenges that include improved scheduling, the potential for overcrowding on some trains and the relatively homogeneous makeup of its ridership, which is predominantly white and well-off.

The most significant initiatives for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency remain its extension of service south from San Rafael, to connect with the ferry terminal at Larkspur by late next year, and the move north to Windsor, set for completion by early 2022.

But a staff review of the system’s first year in operation, plus results from a new, detailed series of surveys of SMART riders, fueled a broad discussion last month at a public board workshop of the successes and shortcomings for the taxpayer- funded rail line.

In its first year, the agency beat its initial fare revenue target of $3.9 million by about $240,000, according to Erin McGrath, the agency’s chief financial officer.

More than half of the $4.16 million collected through fares through August 2018 came from payments through the Clipper card system, with another quarter coming from discounted monthly passes for more frequent riders. Roughly 17 percent of tickets were purchased on the SMART smartphone app, and 6 percent from discounted “eco-passes” available to college students, military veterans and large employers.

Through this October, SMART reported serving approximately 865,000 riders, including 82,000 with bicycles. Of those totals, about 723,000 passengers rode during the first year of service, including an estimated 9,000 who took advantage of the free weekend of service in August to celebrate the commuter rail’s 1-year anniversary.

A trio of ridership surveys that included 5,500 respondents over the past year sought to shed light on who uses the line, how they use it and why they favor it over other transportation options, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

“This was a question we couldn’t answer a year ago — who are our SMART riders?” Mansourian told the 12-member SMART board at the Oct. 17 workshop. “It gives us a lot of data for future planning — not just us, but also our partner agencies. Who are they and what are their travel patterns? Over 5,000 people gives us a very good clue.”

The results showed SMART’s average rider is 46 years old, lives in a household of three, earns $97,300 a year and has the option to drive but instead chooses to take the train.

The majority of participants in two online SMART surveys and an in-person sampling conducted by the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, identified as white (77 percent) and English speakers (95 percent).

Male passengers make up 53 percent of riders and female passengers make up 47 percent.

Just 15 percent of riders classified themselves as Hispanic, with 4 percent citing Spanish as their native tongue. As of July 2017, Sonoma County’s Latino population was estimated at 27 percent compared to 16 percent in Marin, according to the United States Census Bureau.

The discrepancy in the share of Latino riders taking the train versus their proportion of the general population gave some SMART board members pause.

“I’m happy to see the ridership is high, but I’m also a little frustrated because I think the demographics are clearly white and higher-end salaries,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “So much of public transit is there for the whole public and I’m concerned that we’re not marketing or attracting … more Latinos.”

The pricing structure to ride SMART was discussed as a possible detractor for lower- income riders. For example, the 55-minute trip from the station in downtown Santa Rosa to San Rafael — a popular route — costs $9.50 each way for a regular passenger.

“I do wonder if our demographic reflects the fares, or if fares reflect the demographic,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also sits on the SMART board. “And I don’t know how we answer that. I think it evolves over time.

“It really goes to, ‘Who do we want our customers to be and what is our capacity going forward?’ ”

The board recommitted to examining its fee structure early next year, once more is known about the outcome of the vote Nov. 6 on the ballot measure that would repeal the new state gas tax.

Approval of the repeal would threaten at least $20 million pegged for SMART expansion projects. A lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association over planned state bridge toll hikes passed by Bay Area voters in June could also eliminate $40 million slated to cover most of the extension cost to Windsor.

Another pressing challenge is crowding on some trains — an issue that could worsen as the rail system prepares to begin offering service at the Larkspur station by late 2019, providing a direct connection to the Golden Gate Ferry into San Francisco.

“The problem’s been discussed and it’s not yet been addressed,” said board member Jake Mackenzie, a Rohnert Park councilman. “But believe me, the 7:50 (a.m.) Golden Gate Ferry out of Larkspur Landing is starting to get pretty jammed. Our success will exacerbate that problem.”

Mansourian said he would continue to collaborate with the Golden Gate Bridge transportation district to tailor schedules — a process that previously took two years to coordinate before SMART began service. Mansourian was hopeful that the Golden Gate district would increase staff and add a ferry to deal with any rise in demand from SMART riders after opening the Larkspur station.

Other looming milestones include the addition of a downtown station in Novato, slated for next year. SMART is also pursuing studies of potential eastward expansion to Suisin City in Solano County via Novato, and to the East Bay, perhaps by way of a future San Rafael-Richmond bridge.

“It’s great to see how people are using the trains as a choice,” said board member Dan Hillmer, mayor of Larkspur. “It seems there’s no better news than success.

“But if we’re over our projections in certain areas — and seeing how people are choosing to use it, with bikes, walking to and from that first transit stop, coming and going — what about this information helps us plan for a more successful implementation for the rest of the system?” he wondered.

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

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