SMART train to keep reduced rates through summer, make parking free
Fare reductions designed to welcome residents back aboard the SMART train will continue at least through August, as the North Bay rail agency seeks to recharge its sluggish ridership recovery amid a receding coronavirus pandemic.
The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Board of Directors voted unanimously Wednesday to extend the nearly 40% rate discounts while also making on-site parking free to reduce barriers to ridership.
The extension comes at a pivotal time, said SMART Board of Directors Chair David Rabbitt, as the move could help demonstrate the commuter rail agency’s value in the face of rising gas prices, which have reached more than $8.50 per gallon in far-flung, rural outposts.
“SMART’s always thought that if you work it within your travel system, and it works with your schedule, it’s a great way to go,” Rabbitt said in a Tuesday phone interview. “It’s comfortable, it’s relaxing, it’s safe. And now it will be a cheaper alternative to driving your car.”
First adopted in May 2021, the reduced fares sit at $1.50 per zone for most adults, with a $15 daily maximum. Prices for older adults are half that amount, and the 40% discount extends to monthly passes and weekend passes, which remain at reduced prices.
SMART earned nearly $4.1 million in fare revenue in 2019, compared to just $692,220 last year, demonstrating the deep toll that COVID-19 has had on ridership amid shutdowns and changing commuter patterns.
The continuation of rate reductions, initially scheduled to end in May, will cost SMART an estimated $110,000, according to documents made public by the agency. But with SMART averaging just 733 daily riders in January – down from 2,394 daily riders in the first two months of 2020 – there is a push to reignite the agency’s recovery.
“SMART has seen a pretty steady increase in ridership,” Rabbitt said. “The trajectory has been going slowly up, so I think it’s a good time to remind people that SMART is a good alternative.”
General Manager Eddy Cumins, who was appointed in November, also sought to remove other barriers to ridership, citing recent trips to empty SMART parking lots in Sonoma and Marin counties.
In one case, Cumins said, his was the only car in the parking lot.
“We really have to ask why,” said Cumins, who surmised that the agency’s $2 parking fee could be a barrier to ridership.
Parking revenue hovered around $75,000 in 2019, and staff estimated the agency would lose $6,600 if it made parking free through August.
Although board members didn’t balk at the revenue loss, some expressed concern that the absence of a fee would mean less control over who parks at the lots, and whether the move would attract non-riders.
“If there were no parking controls at all, in those places where there’s a little bit of overflow parking, that could lead to a problem if we’re not tracking it,” said Melanie Bagby, a former Pepper Road resident and now Cloverdale’s representative on the SMART board.
In an interview Tuesday, before Wednesday’s meeting, Rabbitt said the move to maintain low fares and make parking free could be viewed as a marketing investment.
“I do think that SMART being still a younger agency, and being mired in, from the day we opened – there’s been flood, fire, pandemic, I still see us as reaching out to the public, and letting them know that we’re a good alternative,” Rabbitt said. “In my mind, this is akin to a good marketing tool. Let them experience the train.”
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at email@example.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.