Published Tuesday, September 16, 2003, in the Contra Costa Times
Low turnout jeopardizes BART extension
By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
Contra Costa Times
Low ridership may force BART to cut back service on the two-month-old
extension to San Francisco International Airport and the Peninsula.
Samtrans, the San Mateo County agency responsible for paying the new
line's operating costs, has said it will run out of money before the
first of the year unless more people ride.
The line logged 25,000 trips a day in July and August, a figure far
lower than the 42,000 estimate on which planners based the operating
"Less service is a possibility although we don't want to do anything
to discourage ridership," said San Mateo County Supervisor and
Samtrans board member Mike Nevin. "BART and Samtrans are going to
have to work together on this situation. We can't break Samtrans.
That won't help."
The threat of red ink will further test BART and Samtrans'
relationship, a complex partnership that has evolved over often
difficult negotiation and construction issues.
Under its contract with BART, Samtrans accepted liability for
extension operating costs. In return, it receives fare proceeds and a
share of parking and other fees.
If the line makes money, the agencies split the proceeds. If it loses
money, Samtrans must cover the deficit.
BART officials insisted on the provision to protect the operating
money for the rest of the system, funded partially by taxpayers in
Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties.
San Mateo County residents do not pay BART property tax and do not
hold seats on its elected board.
Despite the provision, Samtrans has advised BART that it cannot
afford to exceed the $6 million it budgeted to operate the line
through June 2004 and has asked to renegotiate the contract.
Unless ridership dramatically improves this fall, Samtrans will spend
every dime of its budget by early next year, Nevin said.
BART officials vowed to hold Samtrans to the terms of the deal even
if it means going to court.
Philosophical differences aside, BART has suffered deep budget cuts
in the recent economic downturn and lacks sufficient cash reserves to
absorb a prolonged financial drain.
"The financial consequences of this could be enormous to the people
in the East Bay if Samtrans walks away from its agreement," said BART
Director Dan Richard of Walnut Creek. "But before we start swallowing
Samtrans poor-mouth talk, we need to ask them why they continue to
run bus service that competes with the new line."
[BATN: Let's ask the same of Caltrain too ... it's also allowing
transit users to avoid being forced to ride BART. What about
Caltrans and those parallel highways it's running?]
At the same time, BART holds a huge stake in the new line and "will
do everything it can to help Samtrans resolve the issue," said BART
General Manager Tom Margro.
Cost-cutting measures could include service cuts, although Margro and
Nevin expressed reluctance to make changes that might hurt ridership.
Staffers will also evaluate ways to improve service without hiking
costs, such as tweaking the schedule to allow for better timing and
the elimination of transfers from East Bay routes.
The airport station has proven the most attractive destination,
followed by the San Bruno and South San Francisco stations.
The Millbrae station, with its highly touted cross-platform
connection with CalTrain, has attracted far fewer customers than
"We're not sure what's happening at Millbrae," Margro said. "The
terminus (end of the line) stations usually have robust
ridership. ... I've also suggested that we look at the impacts of
both the $1 surcharge and the parking fees. It may be that a
combination of those fees has put some people off."
Despite the gloomy talk, Margro and Nevin both say it's too early to
The line opened June 22, the start of summer and the traditional slow
period for transit.
"We couldn't have opened at a worse time," Nevin said. "Schools and
colleges were out. The freeways were flowing. The economy continued
to suffer. People didn't have jobs."
Both men say they will look to September results, where they hope the
end of the vacation season and worsening traffic on Highway 101 will
deliver more fare-paying passengers.
Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers transportation and growth. Reach her at
925-945-4773 or lvorderb@...
[BATN: See also: recent related stories:
BART extension stalled but not yet derailed
Local legislators help BART SFO win another $100M
Low ridership may force BART SFO extension cut
BART SFO extension running out of SamTrans funding
Letter: Stranded by BART, buses at SFO
Low-ridership BART SFO extension saps SamTrans
Millbrae BART ridership drags SFO extension down
Letter: Millbrae-SFO BART shuttle nonsense
BART ridership down again in latest report
BART SFO ridership 40% under predictions
BART says airport "right on target", overall rides 60% low
SamTrans sets aside $2M for Q1 BART SFO deficit
BART says SFO ridership exceeds expectations
Parking fees ease SamTrans' BART SFO operating deficit
BART SFO ridership pathetic
BART SFO ridership 37% less than expected so far
BART claims SFO/Millbrae extension a "success"
BART SFO extension's unfinished financial business