Tuesday, June 28, 2016

[Marin County] Close to Home: SMART has only itself to blame for fare fiasco

In 2014, the Marin County civil grand jury found that “the SMART board of directors should play a more active role in representing the interests of the citizens of Sonoma and Marin counties in governing and providing oversight of the SMART project (and) … that some board members do not have an adequate understanding of the financial and system operating issues.”
The board rejected these findings. It shouldn’t have.
At the June 1 board meeting, these findings were on full display. The board’s groping for how to set fares between zones was the consequence of its poor oversight of staff.
Four current members were on the board in 2007. Others have been on the board for more than two years. If the grand jury findings on board deficiencies had been taken seriously, current board members would have endeavored to learn some of the critical economic and financial challenges facing the agency.
Longtime board members would have sought a detailed operating budget and ridership analyses from staff in order to deepen their understanding of how alternative fare structures impact the budget and ridership.
But that’s not what happened. As board member Carol Russell stated, “Frankly, I don’t know what it costs to run this railroad.” Of course she doesn’t. The board members have never asked for a detailed budget that would educate them on how future budgets of the agency are about to radically change once rail operations begin. SMART defenders will claim that the board reviewed the 2016 budget in mid-May. But that presentation contained few operating details. Critical questions were never asked. The lesson: staff provides few details when none are asked for.
When board oversight is lacking, misleading statements go unchallenged. An example: the claim that there have been 25 prior ridership studies over the past 15 years with ridership forecasts running from 900 to 6,545 weekday riders.
There have been only two publicly available ridership analyses containing any detail since 2005. The first was prepared for the environmental impact report in 2006 and projected ridership for 2025. It forecast only 230 Sonoma County residents would take morning trains into Marin County. A second study was completed by Dowling Associates in 2011. It projected more riders departing from San Rafael northbound in the morning than arriving and was dismissed by many as simply “not credible.” In late 2014, a ridership forecast for the Santa Rosa-San Rafael segment was included in SMART’s environmental impact statement prepared for the Federal Transit Administration. It reported only total ridership and indicated the extension to Larkspur would generate only 131 additional daily riders in 2035. Why was that forecast so paltry? If other ridership studies have been completed, they have not been presented to the board, leading board member Shirlee Zane of Sonoma County to state that the ridership forecast was “a shot in the dark.” But that’s because the board hasn’t asked for a detailed study.
At the end of the three-hour session, the board adopted round-trip fares of $19 between Santa Rosa and San Rafael without knowing the revenue or ridership impacts. This is almost 20 percent more than Golden Gate Transit fares. Before this, virtually all communication with the public has been that bus and rail fares would be comparable.
The board members have no one to blame but themselves.
June 26, 2016
The Press Democrat
By Mike Arnold

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