CA: This is the first Bay Area transit agency to fully recover its 2019 ridership

Feb. 19, 2024
While they vary in size, the transit operators with the highest ridership recovery also appear to have one thing in common — they largely serve people taking local trips.

Feb. 16—The idea that fewer people would be riding the region's trains, buses and ferries this decade than in the past one seemed unfathomable just five years ago, when agencies struggled with demand to move people into San Francisco's downtown core.

Now, it's hard to believe for many agencies that they will see a return to 2019 crowds this decade after the pandemic fueled a boom in telework and hybrid work, luring office workers away from public transit.

That's one of the reasons why the ridership comebacks of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, (which last year exceeded its 2019 ridership) and Marin Transit (which recuperated 96% of its monthly ridership in December) stand out.

In fact, four of five transit agencies in the region with the highest ridership recoveries operate in the North Bay, according to a Chronicle analysis of ridership data agencies report to the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database.

And while they vary in size, the transit operators with the highest ridership recovery also appear to have one thing in common — they largely serve people taking local trips.

SMART is a small commuter rail operator in Sonoma and Marin counties that launched service in 2017. The agency was building its ridership base when March 2020's stay-at-home orders tanked the region's transit use to historic lows. It finished 2023 with 750,016 total passenger trips, a 50% increase from 2022 and a 4% bump from 2019.

Much of SMART's recent ridership gains have come from riders boarding trains on weekends and during the middle of the day, according to SMART General Manager Eddy Cumins. In response, the agency added more midday weekday and weekend service.

SMART set new monthly ridership records last year and saw its highest ridership day in late June during the Marin County Fair, when 3,598 people rode its trains. The agency has yet to meet its projected ridership of 5,100 daily riders, the Marin Independent Journal reported, with the pandemic setting back early progress.

"We've still got a long way to go. I don't feel like we're where we want to be ultimately," Cumins said. "We have room to grow in the future, but it's very good to be back above 2019."

Marin Transit, the county's main bus operator, recovered 90% of its 2019 ridership last year. SamTrans, the Peninsula's bus operator, followed behind with an 84% recovery, along with Sonoma County Transit (76%) and Santa Rosa's CityBus (74%). The South Bay's Valley Transportation Authority recovered 72% of its ridership last year, as well, leading the region's largest transit agencies.

Marin Transit was the only Bay Area agency to recover more than half its ridership within a year of the stay-at-home orders. Service workers who rely on its service to get around the county never stopped riding its buses, said Marin Transit General Manager Nancy Whelan.

The ridership recovery of Marin Transit contrasts that of its neighbor, Golden Gate Transit, which operates buses and ferries in the county and San Francisco.

The Golden Gate district had a ridership almost twice the size of Marin Transit in 2019, but has seen steep drops in demand for the commuter buses and ferries that shuttled office workers from Marin to downtown San Francisco. The district has recovered about half of its pre-pandemic ridership, with an apparent plateau since last spring.

Traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge — along with the toll revenue that comes with it — also remains down, and the district is considering increasing tolls to raise revenue that pays for transit service.

Last year, Marin Transit's 2.7 million passenger trips exceeded Golden Gate Transit's annual haul by about 38,000 trips.

"We thought 80% might be as good as we ever got. It could have been the (ceiling), with a very slow recovery after that," Whelan said. "So we're moving ahead faster than we envisioned."

SMART and Marin Transit are each in an enviable financial position.

Neither agency projects the massive budget shortfalls that fare-dependent agencies like BART and Muni are bracing for in the next two years. That's because their services are already heavily subsidized by local taxes. Fare revenues cover about 9% of operating costs for Marin Transit, and 6% for SMART.

It's a funding model that BART and the region's largest transit agencies hope to replicate when they ask Bay Area voters to pass a transit tax measure, likely in 2026.

SMART, however, will face an existential challenge later this decade. The agency has to muster two-thirds support from local voters to renew a quarter-cent sales tax that pays for much of its operations. The sales tax expires in early 2029, and a 2020 attempt to renew the tax failed with 46% of voters opposed.

Growing ridership and expanding the rail system are the key ways SMART officials aim to generate more voter support.

Cumins said the agency reduced fares by 40% and lowered prices for its monthly passes. In April, SMART will pilot free transit rides for seniors and children.

A new infill station in North Petaluma will open by the end of the year, with a long-awaited SMART Windsor station set to debut in 2025.

"We really feel that continuing to grow the ridership and continuing with the expansions, with what the voters had expected, are really key in building that base" of voter support, said Marin County Supervisor Eric Lucan, who sits on the SMART and Marin Transit boards. "We've got a lot of positive momentum for SMART, and we'll be looking at when's the right time to go back out for that renewal."

Reach Ricardo Cano: [email protected]; Twitter: @ByRicardoCano


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