SMART’s review of ticket prices could come next month — or next year

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The North Bay’s commuter rail service has been in operation for a year and a half, with a stable ridership, slightly higher-than-expected fare revenues, and work continuing on extension of the line to its southern terminus in Larkspur.

But a key dilemma remains unaddressed: How to diversify its passenger base beyond the current set of predominantly white, well-off riders?

Some board members of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency last year publicly speculated on whether system’s pricing structure was impacting the makeup of riders, serving as a detractor for low-income commuters.

The SMART board had previously committed to re-evaluating the fare structure after the first year of operations. But now 18 months since it began service, the agency has yet to bring the matter forward for a public discussion.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, has been noncommittal this year and last on when exactly that step would come.

Last year, at a public workshop, he told SMART board members it would have to wait until early 2019. He said that timing would allow more clarity on the outcome of a repeal effort targeting the state’s gas tax for transportation upgrades, including funding for SMART projects. The ballot measure was rejected in November.

A separate transit funding concern persists to this day: a legal challenge to a regional bridge toll hike approved by voters last June. Mansourian hoped that matter would be sufficiently resolved by now.

“I think sometime next year when we have those certainties would be a very good time,” he said at the Oct. 17 board workshop, when SMART leaders were initially set to reconsider the fare schedule. “If that works for you, that is what our plan will be.”

The board member who asked the question of him at the time, Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, said he considered Mansourian’s suggestion “a reasonable approach.”

“We’ve just been given a recommendation from our general manager,” Mackenzie said at the meeting. “I think that we should all take note of that as we move forward.”

Just a month later, however, Mansourian indicated he favored postponing the fare discussion even longer, possibly until early 2020, until after the extension to Larkspur is finished by the end of this year.

He said he preferred that date so more rider data could be collected and incorporated into the agency’s overall financial plan.

“Once Larkspur is up and that piece is done and we start having some ridership info, then it’s the best time to look at the entire fare structure, because now we have more data about who’s going from where to where,” Mansourian said in an interview late last month. He said he did not recall previously committing to a timeline related to the state gas tax or bridge toll issues.

“In order for us examine what do we do with the fares, you need to have ridership data,” he said. “The intention is to explain that to the board and see what they wish for us to do.”

As of mid-February, SMART had carried 1,052,372 passengers since its launch in August 2017. The agency previously reported beating its projected first-year revenue target of $3.9 million by about $260,000.

The rail system is supported by a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax approved by a majority of voters in Sonoma and Marin counties in 2008.

But survey results last year from its first study of passengers showed its ridership skews far wealthier and whiter than overall population.

The 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 survey found.

The vast majority of passengers — 77 percent — identified as white, with only 15 percent as Latino.

For comparison, 27 percent of Sonoma County residents identify as Latino. In Marin County, the share is 16 percent.

The survey results raised eyebrows last year among some SMART board members, and last month they again called on SMART staff, including Mansourian, to consider the fare study as an item for discussion at the board’s upcoming April 3 workshop.

They noted they’ve heard from passengers about current ticket prices being too expensive.

“People love it, but it’s a steep climb for some,” said Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold, who has twice served as board chairwoman.

Without a discounted senior or monthly pass, it costs $3.50 to board SMART versus $1.95 on the BART system serving San Francisco and the East Bay.

The average BART fare in 2018 was $3.90 but a similar distance on SMART costs $6.90, with the majority of ticket prices topping out at no more than $10.

“We need to look at how we’re going to make our train public transit for everybody, because I think it is not affordable for some people,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has served on the SMART board for nine years. “We’re seeing that our numbers are still primarily white men working at good paying jobs who can afford the fares. I do want to talk about diversity in terms of ridership and what we’re doing to achieve that.”

Public feedback on the agenda for the April 3 workshop will be taken at SMART’s regular board meeting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, at its Petaluma headquarters, 5401 Old Redwood Highway.

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

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