“I love the big number, the 1.7 (million). At some point, that number is not that useful,” Rabbitt said.
“What we’re going to do with the data is what I’m more interested in,” said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, whose yearlong tenure as board chairman ended Wednesday. “The real question is, how can we provide a better service to our communities having that knowledge?”
Agency officials attributed the decline in weekend ridership to the devastating wildfires in 2017 and last year and a corresponding drop in tourism. But they highlighted the continued gains during weekdays, which account for 85% of ridership. Board members noted that comes before the opening of new stations in Larkspur and downtown Novato, as well as an expanded schedule, all of which they expect will buoy ridership.
“Regardless of what these numbers say, we’ve been sensing what the trends are and what people want and we’ve always been working on improving ridership,” Fudge said. “So I think we need to continually look at the whole picture and the big picture. If we dive down into these tiny details about one particular week and if we all try to analyze whatever someone is challenging on a week … you know, we really don’t have time for that.”
The disclosure of detailed ridership data and Wednesday’s discussion come at a pivotal time for SMART, which is asking for a 30-year renewal of its quarter-cent sales tax nearly a decade early. Without that extension, agency officials say they will be forced to slash SMART’s service and workforce.
“SMART will be forced to find other cuts to free up funds for debt service — cuts that would impact progress on the system,” Marin County Supervisor Judy Arnold read from prepared remarks. “Just to name a few: Fewer trains during the day, reduced maintenance for bike paths, crippled ability to compete for outside funds to build additional stations and pathway.”
Jack Swearengen, chairman of Friends of SMART, a citizen group that promotes rail transit in the North Bay, said the train’s arrival has offered residents and tourists a climate friendly way to get from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. The system is set to extend to Windsor by the end of 2021, and eventually to Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
“The automobile is self- limiting. It’s reached its capacity to move people and goods, and we know that,” Swearengen said. “But there are some people who are living in denial and saying, ‘No, no, we can keep on doing what we’ve always done.’ ”
Napa resident Mike Setty, who said he has decades of experience in transit planning, said SMART needed to improve on future releases of ridership data — allowing the public to evaluate the health of a taxpayer-funded system, before they decide on the upcoming ballot measure.
“I think you need to show some ridership increases sooner,” he said. “You need to see what the numbers are by February, and you can’t wait until after the first meeting in March.”