As the North Bay's commuter rail line moves into its second year of operation, transit officials overseeing its expansion say they must confront a range of challenges that include improved scheduling, the potential for overcrowding on some trains and the relatively homogeneous makeup of its ridership, which is predominantly white and well-off.

The most significant initiatives for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency remain its extension of service south from San Rafael, to connect with the ferry terminal at Larkspur by late next year, and the move north to Windsor, set for completion by early 2022.

But a staff review of the system's first year in operation, plus results from a new, detailed series of surveys of SMART riders, fueled a broad discussion last month at a public board workshop of the successes and shortcomings for the taxpayer-funded rail line.

In its first year, the agency beat its initial fare revenue target of $3.9 million by about $240,000, according to Erin McGrath, the agency's chief financial officer.

More than half of the $4.16 million collected through fares through August 2018 came from payments through the Clipper card system, with another quarter coming from discounted monthly passes for more frequent riders. Roughly 17 percent of tickets were purchased on the SMART smartphone app, and 6 percent from discounted "eco-passes" available to college students, military veterans and large employers.

A trio of ridership surveys that included 5,500 respondents over the past year sought to shed light on who uses the line, how they use it and why they favor it over other transportation options, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager.

"This was a question we couldn't answer a year ago — who are our SMART riders?" Mansourian told the 12-member SMART board at the Oct. 17 workshop. "It gives us a lot of data for future planning — not just us, but also our partner agencies. Who are they and what are their travel patterns? Over 5,000 people gives us a very good clue."

Through this October, SMART reported serving approximately 865,000 riders, including 82,000 with bicycles. Of those totals, about 723,000 passengers rode during the first year of service, including an estimated 9,000 who took advantage of the free weekend of service in August to celebrate the commuter rail's one-year anniversary.

(c)2018 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)