Jul. 26–The North Bay’s commuter rail system will consider the first major changes to its fare policy in nearly three years of service, including a regional discount program for low-income commuters, as it contemplates the future of public transit in the midst of the pandemic.
SMART recently renewed its request to take part in a new pilot program in the Bay Area that offers half-price tickets to eligible riders on Golden Gate Transit buses and ferries, Caltrain and San Francisco’s Muni system, plus 20% off tickets on BART. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the 2-week-old Clipper START program, may allow more than a dozen other transit agencies to join as early as the end of the year, with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit again relaying its interest in what would remain an 18-month trial period.
Several SMART board members have continued to emphasize the need for adjustments to the system’s pricing to garner more passengers, especially those with less money to spend on transit. A standard round-trip adult ticket along SMART’s current 45-mile line from Larkspur to north of Santa Rosa costs $23.
“How do we lower fares in a way that attracts more people and get more of those transit riders?” Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year SMART board member, said last month. “I’ve been hammering for this a long time, and I’m going to keep hammering on it, too. I do think we need to be working on that and maybe sooner rather than later.”
Individuals who make about $25,500 and families of four with annual incomes of less than $52,400 qualify for the Clipper START program. To receive a special Clipper card that includes the discount, Bay Area residents between 19 and 64 years old must apply on the Clipper card website.
The region’s transportation commission reimburses agencies involved in the program for 10% of their lost fares. Even a slight uptick in ridership from the new program could generate added revenues and stave off longer-term financial pain for many public transit agencies, said Denis Mulligan, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District.
“Right now, we’re all in survival mode,” Mulligan said. “We embrace this because it’s useful to draw more people to the system, and particularly with the pandemic, to help us come out of the other side. It’s one of many things in the toolkit to help bring back customers.”
SMART is otherwise looking to address what many residents of Sonoma and Marin counties have long complained are excessive costs to ride the taxpayer-funded train, which since March has struggled to fill seats. Ridership on the young system — as well as aboard countless others throughout the region and nation — has plummeted during shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus, resulting in drastically reduced fare box recoveries.
“One of the things I’ve heard most from the public is we need to have options for low-income riders and make sure it’s accessible to everyone as a public transit agency,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers, a SMART board member. “Having a low-income option will help folks get to and from work and use it as a commuter rail once we’re out of COVID.”
Weekday ridership on SMART trains has plunged around 90% since the arrival of COVID-19 and restrictions imposed by public health officials to limit its spread. Ridership increased slightly following the recent reopening of the economy, up to about 400 passengers per day as of last week, according to Julia Gonzalez, SMART’s spokeswoman, but is still down from a peak of nearly 3,300 daily riders as recently as February.
SMART views fare reductions — including the pilot program offering discounts to low-income riders — as a way to draw people back to the system and help its bottom line. The agency is projecting just $2.6 million in fare revenues for the current budget year, down from the $4.1 million expected the prior year before the coronavirus crippled the region’s public transit systems.
“The direction the agency is heading right now is to look at everything, to reevaluate fares and reevaluate schedules,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to help not only make transit more affordable, but attract more people to transit and to the train in particular. It’s vitally important, because while increasing ridership is important for all transit agencies, the need to address the toll transportation has on climate and greenhouse gas emissions has not gone away … even in the era of COVID.”
SMART currently offers other discount programs, such as half-price fares for youth, seniors and riders with a disability, as well as flat-rate $200 monthly passes. But since SMART launched service in August 2017, a standard adult ticket has remained $3.50 to board, with the majority of train riders traveling between three fare zones and spending $7.50 per ride, or $15 for the round-trip.
“I imagine that there’s going to be some significant changes in ridership patterns, and I wonder if we should start rethinking our fare policy, in particular thinking about our kind of commuter discount,” Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, a SMART board member, said last month. “Maybe this is an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, folks who have never ridden SMART before, we’re going to give some fare incentives to encourage that ridership to rediscover or initially discover SMART as a transportation option.'”
SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian concurred with the idea and committed to presenting a plan to overhaul fares at an upcoming board meeting. Acceptance into the Clipper START program is another avenue to accomplish the goal of reduced fares for a greater percentage of the population, which he last week labeled “a very important item for SMART.”
Before more transit agencies can be admitted to the discount program for low-income riders, the region’s transportation commission must approve the expansion and add to the $11 million it allocated for the pilot period. The commission will tap about half of the $13 million it received in federal CARES Act dollars to allow other agencies to sign on to the program, according to John Goodwin, a MTC spokesman.
“The past four months have really spotlighted for all of us how many essential workers are also very low-paid workers,” Goodwin said. “So there’s no question the Clipper START program could be of assistance to transit agencies in accomplishing twin objectives, of wooing back former riders and attracting new customers as well. It’s going to help, but it’s not going to completely fill the bill.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.
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