SMART Expecting 7% Rise in Ridership

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit continues to roll toward a standout comeback in ridership in the past four years, the transit agency chief told a Santa Rosa business group Wednesday.

“Everybody knows commuter rail took the hardest hit of (any transit) during the pandemic,” General Manager Eddy Cummins said at the monthly meeting of Sonoma County Alliance.

Also speaking at the event was James Cameron, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, providing an update on near-term projects such as highway interchanges and long-range endeavors such as the estimated $6.3 billion-$11.1 billion overhaul of Highway 37 connecting Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties.

Cummins credited the ridership boost to measures such as adding more trains per day, opening new stations, extending weekend service, launching a free field trip program for K-12 students, and piloting free fares for youth and seniors, for bringing SMART the highest ridership recovery rate of any transit agency in the Bay Area.

Looking at the most recent figures available, SMART’s ridership this fiscal year, which ends in June, was trending 7% above 2019 pre- pandemic levels. SMART is projecting it will reach 825,000 riders this fiscal year. That would be 29% higher than 640,099 last year and 15% above 716,847 in 2019, the agency’s highest year since it started.

By comparison, Cummins pointed to recovery rates for Marin and Sonoma counties’ bus lines, ranked the region’s second and fourth highest, respectively, at 90% and 80%. The region’s transit rail lines were in the bottom half of area bounce back rates, with BART at 42%, Muni at 41% and Caltrain at 39%.

Increasing ridership is one of four key objectives for the agency and one that the Marin County grand jury highlighted last year as an area for improvement as SMART will have to make its pitch to voters to renew the three-quarter-cent sales tax that covers most of the operational budget. The tax is set to expire in 2029.

SMART is currently developing its 2024 strategic plan to guide the agency over the next five years. The other three agency objectives are expanding pathways, completing extensions to Windsor and Healdsburg, and enhancing freight rail service. Community workshops and surveys found that the public wants more frequent off-peak service, improved first- and last-mile connections, increased public awareness through marketing, and completing the remaining extensions for rail and pathways.

Several major projects are underway to continue improving and expanding service. The new Petaluma North Station currently under construction is set for completion by the end of 2024. The Windsor extension is also under construction and is now set to open in June 2025. New pathway segments are being built to improve first-and last-mile connections in Marin and Sonoma counties.

SMART is also working on installing real-time electronic signage at stations to display train arrival times, improving pathway wayfinding signage and considering expanding the SMART Connect on-demand electric shuttle pilot program to connect riders to the Larkspur ferry terminal.