Close to Home: SMART still falling short of its promises

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Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a member of the SMART board, recently said she was “happy to see the ridership is high.”

Zane’s statement should be called what it is: an alternative fact.

By any reasonable standard, SMART’s ridership is paltry, not high. There are 26 commuter rail systems reporting ridership monthly to the Federal Transit Administration. SMART’s ridership ranks 23rd.

The Press Democrat reported that SMART took 723,000 riders in its first year of operation. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It isn’t. By comparison, average annual ridership for the 25 other commuter rail transit systems was more than 19 million riders in 2017. CalTrain, serving the Peninsula, reported taking 17 million riders in 2017 — 23 times SMART’s ridership.

According to published data, SMART is taking fewer than 2,400 riders on an average weekday, or about 1,100 in the morning and afternoon peak commute hours. Since trains operate in both directions, this becomes about 550 in each direction during the peak hours. No wonder the train is having no impact on traffic; that is, except in downtown San Rafael where it is causing congestion.

Most people taking the train are using it for round trips. This means the number of Sonoma County residents riding the train on the average weekday is trivial when compared to a population of more than 500,000.

Has anyone noticed that SMART is operating 34 trains a day? Given the low daily ridership, if peak hour trains are crowded, very few are taking the off-peak trains. SMART staff hasn’t disclosed ridership by train. They apparently don’t want the board or public to know most trains are carrying a small number of passengers.

Voters were promised 70 miles of rail line with service beginning in fall 2014. What voters got was 43 miles with service beginning in August 2017.

SMART’s current general manager has repeatedly blamed the Great Recession for the shorter line, claiming it explains why northern Sonoma County residents aren’t being served by the train, as promised in 2008. Like the statement that ridership is high, this is another example of an alternative fact.

As reported by Dick Spotswood in the Marin Independent Journal years ago, SMART’s then-General Manager Lillian Hames and board members were told by consultants long before 2008 that a half-cent sales tax was necessary to construct the line to Cloverdale. Polls indicated that a half-cent tax wouldn’t pass, so the agency just “made up the numbers.”

For example, in 2008 the SMART board adopted an expenditure plan that claimed the cost of constructing 70 miles of rail line was $455 million. Based on SMART’s financial audit reports, this figure understated the true cost by about 50 percent. The underestimate had nothing to do with the Great Recession.

From April 2009 through June 2018, $183 million in sales taxes have been collected in Sonoma County to fund SMART. Since Measure Q was passed in 2008, the average Sonoma County household has paid more than $800 in sales taxes to fund SMART.

Based on the paltry ridership, taxpayers have benefited very little for this investment.

Instead of interviewing the lucky few who find the train affordable and convenient, The Press Democrat ought to interview some of the thousands of taxpayers who have paid hundreds of dollars in sales taxes and received nothing for use of their hard-earned dollars. Maybe then, Cloverdale voters will realize that they are unlikely to see rail service in their lifetimes.

Mike Arnold, a resident of Novato, is a lecturer at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Sonoma State University.

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