Compliments to Eddy Cumins, general manager of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, and SMART’s bi-county board of directors. Unlike some other Bay Area transit agencies, which have failed to bring the majority of their pre-pandemic ridership back so far, SMART’s ridership has mostly bounced back.
Comparing March 2019 to this March, Cumins says that SMART’s early 2020 schedule has been restored, “The average weekday ridership is 86% of pre-pandemic numbers.” That’s an average of 2,030 one-way weekday trips.
The commuter line has put away adequate funding for future rainy days. Unlike BART and San Francisco’s Muni, SMART isn’t facing a “fiscal cliff.” Cumins indicates his agency currently has about $104 million in cash available for operations, which includes $33 million in reserves. When I served on the Mill Valley City Council, I learned the value of stashing funds so as not to be caught short in the event of a natural disaster or an economic downturn.
SMART will remain an ongoing operation at least until the district needs to again face voters sometime before March, 2029. That’s when its fiscal lifeblood, its current one-quarter cent sales tax, expires. Voters will then have a second chance to extend that tax, which funds the annual operating deficit. which SMART – like all American transit systems – incurs.
In 2020, its first effort at renewal was rejected. While that sales tax extension measure received a majority vote in Marin and Sonoma combined, it failed to receive the two-thirds supermajority needed for passage.
SMART’s achievement of seeing most of its pre-pandemic weekday passenger traffic returning doesn’t tell the full story of what SMART initially promised voters.
The passage of the SMART sales tax was based on ridership projections outlined in their 2005 environmental impact report. The expectations are found in the EIR’s Trip Demand Forecasting Report.
Not all the promised 70 miles of track is in operation yet. The bulk of the district’s population is covered by the now-in-service 45 miles of rebuilt track from Larkspur to the Sonoma County Airport, just north of Santa Rosa. Three promised northern Sonoma stations (Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale) have not yet opened. The EIR-based projections cited do not include estimated patronage to those communities.
The old Northwestern Pacific Railroad’s ancient track will soon be under rehabilitation from the airport three miles north to Windsor, a booming Sonoma County community.
If grant funding comes through, that work will continue on to northern Sonoma’s wine tourism mecca in Healdsburg on the Russian River. Whether the commuter train is ever extended to the village of Cloverdale, which only had a population of 8,954 at last count, remains an open question.
The EIR projected that, by 2025, “total daily ridership for SMART” would be 3,585. That includes “boarding and alighting” at each station. Thus the actual number of those making a round trip, as most commuters do, is one half that number or 1,792 riders in each direction.
That was SMART’s declared goal. It’s the rationale that a supermajority of voters based their approval when, in 2008, they voted in favor of Measure Q authorizing the one-quarter percent sales tax to fund, build and operate the train and its parallel multi-use path. It’s the appropriate standard against which SMART’s ridership needs to be judged when the sales tax extension returns to the ballot.
Cumins understands there is more to do in demonstrating – to an understandably skeptical North Bay public – that SMART is a worthwhile investment.
“My goal is 5,000 riders a day, filling three-car trains,” Cumins said.
If he achieves his ambitious target – ridership exceeding the EIR’s projection – many will be amazed and others will be pleased. It’s the appropriate goal if the sales tax extension is to pass on its next and possibly last try.
As Reported by Marin Independent Journal