SMART plans dry runs in September, sets $3.50 one-way base fare

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 May 18. VenTek is the company which will supply the machines.
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 May 18. VenTek is the company which will supply the machines. Alan Dep — Marin Independent Journal

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency hopes to begin rolling simulated service in early September, rail officials said Wednesday.

Passengers would not be in cars, but the rest of the system would operate as if trains were in full service to allow rails, crossing arms and ticket machines to be tested. Service would then begin later in the year.

The rail agency had to approve a fare structure at its Wednesday meeting in order to get that cost programmed into the Clipper system so it could be tested in September.

The board decided on a one-way base fare of $3.50, plus another $2 each time a zone is entered.

Last year the SMART board approved a plan to have five zones when it starts service from downtown San Rafael to the Santa Rosa Airport.

Under the structure, a passenger would pay $11.50 one way to pass through all five zones. SMART officials believe the majority of commuters — 61 percent — would pass between two and three zones. There would be a pass that caps a daily fare at $23 to allow more travel if passengers wanted to get off and on the system.

SMART will offer discounts of between 75 cents and $1.50 for passengers using Clipper-enabled North Bay bus systems to get to the train. There would be senior, disabled, youth and veterans discounts as well.

Rail planners hoped revenue from fares would generate about $5 million a year for its assumption of 3,070 daily riders during the work week. The system expects about 300 riders on each weekend day.

But the adopted base price and zone charges will only produce about $4 million annually. Train officials did not want to set fares too high the first year of service for fear people would be deterred from riding. Money could be pulled from a $19 million reserve if fares fall short.

“We want to find the sweet spot,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, at the meeting held in Petaluma.

Fares will be reviewed after the first year of service.

“Fares should be fair,” said Shirlee Zane, SMART board member from Sonoma, who voiced concern over high fares. “Right now we have no way of determining ridership. It’s a shot in the dark.”

Once service goes from Larkspur to Cloverdale as planned, there would be seven zones. Under the plan there would be two zones in Marin in both the five- and seven-zone configurations, with the border between San Rafael and Novato the demarcation point.

SMART officials also want to develop a discounted annual pass to sell to employers, who can then distribute to employees. Under new federal rules that took effect Jan. 1, an employee can use up to $255 a month of their pre-tax income for monthly transit expenses.

The Clipper card system is similar to FasTrak, which allows drivers to pass through Bay Area toll booths without having to stop and hand over cash. Clipper works in much the same manner, with patrons signing up and allowing their credit cards to have bus, ferry or rail fares deducted.

Clipper users can scan or “tag” their cards on a reader. A computer chip inside the card reads the transaction, information is displayed on the screen and a beep sounds to alert the passenger the card has been read. The Clipper system automatically deducts the correct fare and applies any discounts — including transfers — for each trip.

As envisioned, SMART train station platforms would have Clipper vending and loading machines and card readers for passengers. Scanners will be used by SMART employees on trains to make random fare checks to catch any scofflaws who board without using their Clipper card. There will be retail locations in the community where riders can pick up and load Clipper cards.

SMART promises a speedier southbound commute in comparison to Highway 101. From Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to the Marin Civic Center, the rail service will take 49 minutes, compared with 60 to 90 minutes by car. From Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael, SMART says the trip will take 55 minutes on rails, compared with a 60- to 100-minute trip on Highway 101.

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