Monday, June 20, 2016

How much will SMART train cost to operate?

Sonny Hogg, president of VenTek Transit, shows the user interface of the SMART train’s new ticket vending machines at the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District offices in Petaluma, Calif. during a district board meeting on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. VenTek is the company which will supply the machines. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)
Alan Dep: Marin Independent Journal

From the Marin Independent Journal:

SMART fares show board hasn’t done its homework
by Mike Arnold

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 last month’s board meeting, the grand jury’s 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.

At last month’s board meeting, the grand jury’s 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...

Taxpayers might expect that grand jury findings on board deficiencies would be taken seriously and that current board members would endeavor to learn some of the critical economic and financial challenges facing the agency.

Taxpayers might also expect that 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.

As long-serving board member Carol Russell stated, “Frankly, I don’t know what it costs to run this railroad.” Of course she doesn’t. The board has never asked for a detailed budget that would educate it on the agency’s economics and how future budgets of the agency are about to radically change once rail operations begin.

SMART defenders will claim that board members reviewed the fiscal year 2016 budget in mid-May. But that budget presentation contained few operating details. There wasn’t even a spreadsheet provided to document how the budget prior to start-up will be vastly different once rail operations begin later this year. 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 and then get repeated in the media.

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 is one such example.

First, there have been only two publicly available ridership analyses containing any detail produced since 2005.

One was prepared for the 2006 environmental impact report that projected ridership for 2025.

Proponents dismissed the result because it forecast only 230 Sonoma County residents would take morning trains into Marin.

A second ridership study was performed 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-to-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? These analyses were never reviewed by the board.

If other ridership studies have been completed, they have not been presented to the board, which led board member Shirlee Zane, a Sonoma County supervisor, to state that forecasted ridership was “a shot in the dark.”

But that’s because the board hasn’t asked for a detailed study, not that one couldn’t be produced.

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.

The fare is almost 20 percent more than Golden Gate Transit bus fares.

Until this fare structure was adopted, virtually all communication with the public regarding fares has been that bus and rail fares would be comparable. The board has no one to blame but themselves for their dysfunction.

Board members were told two years ago that they needed to exercise more oversight. They didn’t agree. They are now facing the consequences of their ignorance.

Mike Arnold of Novato is an economist and a longtime critic of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit plan.

Rob's comment:
As always when the IJ does something on SMART, the comments to the story are just as interesting as the story itself.

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