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SMART [Train] looks really bad compared to CalTrain


Benchmarking SMART vs CalTrain is an interesting exercise because the two systems are comparable. Their respective track distance between their main commuting endpoint stations is around 40 miles. Granted the CalTrain population footprint is 3.5 times larger than SMART’s. But, it is easy to scale that to render both systems comparable. To do that we look at the daily utilization rate which is equal to daily passengers divided by the population within the railway system footprint.

Fiscal 2023 was a tough year for CalTrain ridership (depressed level in post-pandemic era) and a spectacular recovery for SMART, as the latter regained its former pre-pandemic ridership level. Yet, the resulting depressed utilization rate for CalTrain was still over twice SMART’s (0.56% for CalTrain and 0.24% for SMART in fiscal 2023). This reflects SMART's poor ridership performance.

Regarding finances, SMART’s passengers pay only about 5 cents on the $dollar of the actual cost of running the trains. This is as close to a free public transit system in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, CalTrain passengers even during this post-pandemic depressed period still pay 18 cents, or over 3 times as much as SMART passengers. Before the pandemic, CalTrain’s passengers paid about 50 cents vs. 9 cents for SMART passengers. Thus, CalTrains passengers paid over 5 times as much as SMART passengers towards covering the expenses of running the trains.

The only way SMART can keep running is if we extend the 0.25% sales tax forever. This sales tax costs the consumers of Marin and Sonoma counties $50 million per year or about half a $billion over the next decade. It makes no fiscal sense to spend so much money on virtually nothing. SMART daily utilization rate is way too close to 0.00% to justify the sums involved.

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. SMART fare strategy
  3. SMART Finances
  4. SMART relies most heavily on the 0.25% sales tax
  5. SMART sales tax is a heavy burden on North Bay consumers
  6. SMART ridership has failed to meet projections by a wide margin
  7. SMART daily utilization rate is close to 0.00%
  8. SMART does not add any passengers to the GGT Larkspur Ferry
  9. SMART vs CALTrain assessed on both Utilization Rate and Operating Ratio
  10. Consideration
  11. Overcoming the Sunk Cost Fallacy


The two railway transit systems are comparable. SMART serves the North Bay. CalTrain serves San Francisco, the Peninsula, and the South Bay.

The table below shows that the two systems have comparable railway lengths. That is especially true when you focus on the distance between the two main cities served by the systems (see Main Distance within the table, both at around 40 miles).

The main difference is that CalTrain has a population footprint of 3.5 million nearly 5 times SMART's at 0.7 million. It is easy to scale this divergence by focusing on the daily utilization rate (daily utilization divided by population).

SMART fare strategy

SMART's strategy is focused on boosting ridership at all costs, or at near-zero cost to passengers.

Source: SMART Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023

While inflation was rising rapidly since the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, SMART went in the other direction and rapidly reduced average fares from $5.45 in fiscal 2020 down to $2.81 in fiscal 2023, a reduction of close to - 50%. This average fare reduction is due to SMART increasingly offering discounts and free fares to Seniors, veterans, and students.

SMART strategy to discount fares has a material impact on its finances.

SMART Finances

SMART financial profile reflects SMART's fare discounting strategy to boost ridership.

The data below shows that since its inception, its fares (by far main component of its operating revenues) has covered less than 10% of its operating expenses. Over the most recent two fiscal years, this percentage decreased to 5.5%.

Source: SMART Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023, Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023.

By comparison, CalTrain historically covered close to 50% of its operating expenses with fares and other operating revenues. Since the COVID pandemic, it experienced an abrupt reduction in ridership and operating revenues. This caused a financial crisis for CalTrain. And, currently its operating revenues cover only 17.9% of its operating expenses.

Notice that CalTrain's crisis level of operating revenues to operating expenses of 17.9% is still 3 times higher than SMART's current level of 5.5%. It is even much higher than SMART in the best of times before the pandemic at 8% to 9% during fiscal 2018 and 2019.

SMART relies most heavily on the 0.25% sales tax

To support its financial operations, SMART relies very heavily on its earmarked 0.25% sales tax. As shown on the data below, the sale tax routinely finances 2/3ds to over 90% of its operations. Meanwhile, CalTrain did not rely on sales tax financing at all until fiscal 2022. When its ridership got hammered by the pandemic, CalTrain threw in the towel and relied on a sales tax to support its operations starting in fiscal 2022.

Source: SMART Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023, Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023.

SMART sales tax is a heavy burden on North Bay consumers

The tables below disclose that the SMART sales tax rate at 0.25% is twice as high as the CalTrain one at 0.125%.

Source: SMART Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023. Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023. California Department of Finance.

If you buy a $40,000 car in the North Bay, you will pay $100 to support SMART vs only $50 in San Francisco to support CalTrain.

Let's look at ridership next, to see what we are getting for $50 million a year.

SMART ridership has failed to meet projections by a wide margin

In the original forecast submitted to the Federal Transit Administration in 2014, SMART forecasted a 5,200 daily passenger ridership. SMART has never come close to achieving this level of ridership. In its best years, SMART achieves only 1/3d of that level (about 1,750 instead of 5,200 daily passengers).

Based on ongoing trends, it appears unlikely that SMART daily ridership would ever reach even half of the 5,200 forecast level (that would be 2,600 or nearly 50% above fiscal 2023 level).

Next, let's compare SMART vs CalTrain on how much the public uses these respective systems.

SMART daily utilization rate is close to 0.00%

A consistent way to scale both systems on a comparable basis is to compare their respective daily utilization rate.

Daily utilization rate = Daily passengers divided by Population

The data below conveys that SMART's daily utilization rate has always been much below 0.30%, even during the early fiscal years not affected by the pandemic. Meanwhile, CalTrains daily utilization rate was at 1.4% before the pandemic; And, is currently (in most recent fiscal year) at 0.56%, still over twice SMART's.

Source: National Transit Database, SMART Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023,

Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. Annual Comprehensive Financial Report 2023.

To figure out if SMART gets to remove a material number of cars from highway 101, my analysis would suggest it would be very few. For further analysis, I want to refer to the excellent work by Mike Arnold, Ph.D. in economics:

See SMART Marketing

SMART does not add any passengers to the GGT Larkspur Ferry

There is one public transit connection that makes the most sense on paper. And, that is the connection between SMART and the Golden Gate Transit Ferry at Larkspur.

In theory, this could connect the two largest cities in Marin (San Rafael and Novato) to San Francisco, one of the main job centers in the Bay Area.

However, the data suggests that the SMART ridership does not contribute to the GGT Larkspur ferry passenger count.

The first table below indicates that the GGT ferry passenger count is independent of the SMART passenger count. The GGT ferry numbers combine both the Sausalito and the Larkspur ferries. But, this does not affect the overall analysis.

Focusing on the table above on the change in passenger count, if you attempted to give credit to SMART for the 2.2% increase in GGT Ferry passenger count during fiscal 2018, you would have to give SMART credit for the - 4.2% decrease in GGT Ferry passenger count in fiscal 2019 (still pre-pandemic period), while SMART's passenger count rose by 12.7%. This does not make sense. The straightforward explanation is that SMART does not contribute to the overall GGT Ferry ridership or Larkspur's ferry in particular.

The brand new SMART Connect shuttle service between the Larkspur train station and the ferry terminal will make little difference. This is for several reasons:

1) The distance between the two is only a third of a mile.

2) The shuttle makes three wasteful stops around the Marin Country Mart rendering the connection very slow.

3) The shuttle does not operate from Monday through Wednesday. So, it misses out on 60% of the weekly commute.

4) The shuttle daily passenger count is so far only 50 passengers per day. And, it may carry only very few passengers who would not have just walked 1/3 of a mile otherwise.

What can explain SMART's failure of not contributing to the GGT Ferry passenger count?

1) The Larkspur ferry terminal is already well served by the Marin Transit and GGT bus systems. These bus systems have numerous stops, readily accessible, and have a more frequent schedule relative to SMART's operations.

2) The Larkspur ferry terminal has the largest parking lot of any public transit in the North Bay, facilitating ready access to car drivers.

SMART vs CalTrain assessed on both Utilization Rate and Operating Ratio

It is interesting to compare SMART vs CalTrain on the two key dimensions simultaneously:

Operating Ratio = Operating Revenues/Operating Expenses

As shown on the tables below, even during CalTrain's post-pandemic depressed ridership level, its daily passenger utilization rate is over 2 x SMART's, and its operating ratio is over 3 x SMART's. Those multiples may increase as CalTrain's ridership may continue to rise. Meanwhile, SMART's ridership may not have much upward momentum left as it has thrown at passengers just about all the discounts and free fares it could to stimulate ridership.

The scatter plot below confirms that SMART's performance on both counts (utilization rate, operating ratio) is far inferior to CalTrain. That is even the case during this post-pandemic period when CalTrain's relative ridership is still depressed meanwhile SMART's has fully recovered.

As shown above, on both dimensions (utilization rate and operating ratio), SMART's performance is a lot closer to 0.00% relative to CalTrain. That picture is unlikely to change much.


The only way SMART can continue is if the 0.25% sales tax is maintained forever. As is, it expires in 2029. And, its extension needs to be approved by voters.

Over the next 10 years, this sales tax would raise over one half of a billion dollars. And, what do we get for all this money? Very little.

One reason we would keep on paying that much for so little is voters' lack of awareness of SMART's inefficiencies. For more on this issue refer to the excellent articles by Mike Arnold within The Marin Post.

Another reason why voters would vote for a SMART sales tax extension is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. That's when we ignore future costs because of the costs we have already incurred (sunk costs).

Overcoming the Sunk Cost Fallacy

It takes collective rational robustness to overcome the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is one of the strongest human cognitive biases. But, it can be done. Regarding public railway systems, we as a society have often overcome this bias. Below, is a short list of abandoned US public railway systems, including the year discontinued.

This is only a short list of notorious discontinued public railway systems. Wikipedia has a long list of North American railroads that went bust. Many of them must have been partly supported by public funds. But, their economics were unsustainable. SMART may have a similar fate.

Marin and Sonoma counties have far better use of half a billion dollars over the next 10 years than simply maintaining SMART that carries an inadequate number of passengers to make any difference in traffic.