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Close to Home: What SMART’s data does and doesn’t say

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After more than two years of operating trains and rejecting requests for ridership data, SMART has finally released daily ridership data from June 29, 2017 through Nov. 30, 2019.

The data reveals much about SMART’s ridership and why it withheld this information from the public.

Ridership is tiny. On the average weekday, there were only 2,375 riders.

Not revealed in the data released is how many passengers are southbound from Sonoma County into Marin County. While SMART didn’t provide this information, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission does.

MTC data indicates that about 28% of weekday riders are Sonoma County residents riding trains into Marin County before 10 a.m. If you add in the trivial number of Marin County residents taking morning trains, there are only 713 people who aren’t driving or taking a bus. And that’s over four hours. With such low ridership, rail proponents have no basis for claiming SMART trains reduce traffic on Highway 101.

Total ridership is declining a bit. From Dec. 1, 2017 to Nov. 30, 2018, total ridership was 721,775. From Dec. 1, 2018 to Nov. 30, 2019, total ridership was 711,384, with a minor increase in weekday ridership minor offset by a larger decline in weekend ridership.

SMART’s general manager concluded in a report delivered to the board for Wednesday’s meeting that ridership is “robust and growing.” That statement isn’t supported by the data.

Trains on weekends and holidays are more highly utilized per train than trains on weekdays. Far more seats on weekday trains are empty as many have already reported.

One might think with this release that this is all the ridership data that there is. Actually, there is much more information available that the agency isn’t providing to the public. SMART continues to hide important and relevant ridership data that it has at its fingertips. That data is ridership by train.

Caltrain has ridership by train posted on its website. SMART is keeping this important information from the public.

How do we know ridership by train is available? The general manager’s report says the following: “We have been reporting to you at every Board meeting SMART ridership utilizing a method that we believe catches the greatest number of riders: manual counts.” If SMART is counting riders manually, it has to be counting riders by train.

Why would SMART want to hide such readily available information from the public?

The MTC data reveals significant differences in ridership by hour. No one should be surprised that almost three-quarters of the weekday riders are taking trains during the peak hours. But with 34 trains a day, many are operating during off-peak hours.

There is now overwhelming evidence that many of SMART’s weekday trains are not well utilized. But they are all costly to operate. And therein lies the rub.

In September, SMART adopted a strategic plan that the board doesn’t want taxpayers and voters to focus on. Their plan is to operate the agency in the red for three years, draining its financial reserves to avoid cutting rail operations.

After the March 3 election on Measure I, SMART’s tax extension, the plan to operate in the red is likely going into the trash. The agency will need to cuts train frequencies to balance its budget. It won’t have a choice. And what trains are the most likely to be cut? The trains least used.

Mike Arnold, an economist and lecturer at Sonoma State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, signed the Marin County ballot argument against Measure I. He lives in Novato.

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