Is the Marin Sonoma SMART train doomed?

The Marin County Civil Grand Jury has concluded that the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit District SMART trains may have to close before the end of this decade. It will all hinge on renewing a tiny tax.

The North Bay's five-year-old SMART Train may not make it to its 10th birthday unless voters renew a quarter-percent sales tax needed for operations. "We'll basically have to cease operation after 2029. Even though it seems a long ways away, when it comes to transportation and transit issues, it's just around the corner," said Heather McKillop, SMART's Chief Financial Officer.

Riders we met don't like it. "To disrupt a mass transit like this for Marin and Sonoma County wouldn't be right or fair to people who really need it," said rider Gordon Jones. "That's kind of ridiculous because a new program that they should have the money to last longer than just the 5 years it's going on," said rider Chris Killebrew.

As many people moving farther north, well away from the suburbs, ridership continues to grow. And talk about a recovery, in July this train actually carried 102% of the people it was carrying before the pandemic. Post pandemic ridership actually hit 105% with a lot of tourist riders. 

"People do use it for tourist reasons and we're very close to a lot of things along the line," said McKillop. "I'd say, it's gonna badly affect everybody because what if somebody wants to explore or sight see or go as far as San Francisco or go as far as Sonoma County, and they have no other option?" said rider Markus Bowie.

And, consider this: Marin and Sonoma counties have the Bay Area's oldest populations. In Marin the median age is about 48, 43 in Sonoma. That’s four to nine years older than the national median age and getting older. "And. we offer a 50% discount to seniors and youth and one of the reasons for that to be able to enable them to get around on the train," said McKillop.

SMART has cut back on its Starlighter, a weekend evening date train, because ridership has fallen off since the summer. But, it's expanding weekend service. "We've seen ridership come back at much higher levels that were pre-pandemic levels," said McKillop.

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