How SMART has regained ridership while avoiding California’s transit ‘fiscal cliff’
Transit agencies around the Bay Area, California and the nation are fretting about the financial strain of keeping partially full trains, buses and ferries rolling amid the slow return of commuters post-pandemic.
But at the light-rail line connecting Marin and Sonoma counties, ridership last month rose above the pre-pandemic level for the first time in three years: 102% of May 2019 levels, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit reported. It was the second straight month SMART topped the list of Bay Area transit agencies in ridership recovery.
By comparison, ridership for Bay Area Rapid Transit, which serves San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula, was 41% of May 2019 levels, and weekday use was 39%.
SMART’s top executive attributes the agency’s recovery feat to greater flexibility to get aggressive with promotions and service to woo back past riders and attract new ones.
“We’re not facing a fiscal cliff,” said Eddy Cumins, general manager. “We’ve been less dependent upon farebox than some of the other agencies. That’s allowed us to put out the service.”
California transit agencies have been warning Sacramento for months that transit agency cutbacks are forecast over the next five years, and news reports suggest service curtailments could come as soon as this fall. “Fiscal cliff” is common term used in government budget discussions, describing what happens when spending far outstrips revenue, thus forcing a precipitous drop in services.
“Farebox dependent operators remain acutely vulnerable to sluggish ridership recovery,” said a Metropolitan Transportation Commission report earlier this year.
The commission, whose nine member Bay Area counties include Solano, Sonoma, Marin and Napa, estimated shortfalls for transit agencies such as BART would grow to total $2.5 billion--$3.3 billion by July 2028 as operators statewide exhaust $4.4 billion in federal pandemic relief money to support service low ridership levels, according to the commission report. The shortfalls statewide could be $6 billion, the California Transit Association estimated.
That’s why Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draft budget alarmed California transit operators and advocates with its proposed $2.2 billion in cuts to transit capital projects to help fill an estimated $22 billion deficit, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. But state legislators on June 11 proposed a budget fix that would eliminate those cuts, allow transit agencies to tap the capital funds for operations, and shift $1.1 billion in cap-and-trade funds to support transit service over the next three years.
The Legislature was under a Thursday deadline to pass the budget. Newsom had not signaled his response by press time.
SMART’s fares amount to 1.8% of $98.5 million in revenue in its new budget, down from 4% in fiscal 2019, but the largest revenue source is sales taxes at 52%. By comparison, BART’s fares account for 31.6% of its $703.8 million in revenue in its newly adopted budget, and it is the second-largest source after sales taxes at 42.4%.
BART’s farebox recovery ratio --- an industry metric for how many cents of fare revenue per dollar of operating costs --- was 72% in 2019 before the pandemic and had fallen to 10% in 2021, according to the National Transportation Database. SMART’s ratio was 15% in 2019, bottomed at 3% in 2021 and rose to 5% in 2022 and 6% now.
This has caused some transit agencies with high farebox ratios to now consider seeking new or higher sales taxes, the Chronicle reported.
“Those that have a sales tax have fared better,” David Rabbitt said. His roles include Sonoma County supervisor and a director of SMART, Golden Gate Bridge and Transportation District and Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
SMART’s quarter-cent sales tax expires in 2029, but an attempt in 2020 to get two-thirds of voters in Marin and Sonoma counties to pre-emptively extend the tax was unsuccessful.
A challenge for transit agencies nationwide is a radical shift in work schedules during the pandemic, with many office jobs going to remote schedules and only gradually moving back.
The top 10 metropolitan areas in the U.S. have been struggling, with only half of office workers back to their pre-pandemic desks by the first week of June, according to key card systems provider Kastle’s Back to Work Barometer. In San Francisco, average office occupancy was 44.7%, and in San Jose 38.9%.
Efforts to get back riders
Cumins in his nearly one and a half years at the helm of SMART has sought to adapt the passenger line’s service and fares to the changing world of work. Service is now fully restored, and additional trains have been added for weekend evenings and to coincide with certain sporting events that can be reached via the Larkspur ferry.