Published Wednesday, August 30, 2006, by the Menlo Park Almanac
Is a sales tax next to bail out SamTrans?
By Tom Dempsey
Recently, San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) officials
revealed that a new half-cent sales tax in San Mateo County is being
discussed as a means to bail out the failing SamTrans district.
Such a proposal is an outrage, as the causes for SamTrans' budget
woes are the direct result of mismanagement. The taxpayers must not
be punished for bad decisions of our local transit managers.
The causes of SamTrans' budget crisis have been blamed on high
fuel prices hurting both SamTrans and Caltrain, which is managed
by SamTrans. Officials have blamed a diverse transit portfolio,
including service for the disabled, as contributing to the budget
But those same officials, including SamTrans general Manager Mike
Scanlon and county Supervisor Jerry Hill, obscure the real truth
-- the BART to SFO disaster.
SamTrans announced earlier this year that it is more than $24 million
in the red. The transit district budget continues to hemorrhage
under its contractual obligation to cover the operating losses for
the BART-SFO extension, which opened in 2003. The four-station
extension has been a money-loser since it opened and, due to the
deal brokered by county transit officials, SamTrans must cover the
losses. This year alone, the BART payment will be approximately
$11.2 million, and has averaged around $10 million every year.
How did we get here?
In the late 1990s, the BART extension was pursued by county transit
managers over the more cost-efficient and sensible investment of
electrifying Caltrain. Local transit officials invited BART to
service northern San Mateo County.
In lieu of joining the BART district, wherein San Mateo County
voters would have had to approve a permanent property tax, county
officials agreed to cover the operating costs for the extension
predicated on the idea that the extension would one day turn a
Boosters such as Supervisor Hill repeated the mantra that "BART at
any cost is worth the price."
Three years after the extension opened, ridership has never come
close to what was proposed and SamTrans has had to pay millions
of dollars to BART each year with no relief in sight. Because the
county is not part of the BART district it will never have an
elected representative on the BART board to advocate for local
These same officials claim that the ridership predictions were based
on the economic context of the dot.com era; however, that's not
true. The ridership projections were developed in the early 1990s,
before the average person had heard of the internet.
What's true is that fuel prices have increased dramatically.
Ironically, if SamTrans had invested in electrifying Caltrain
10 years ago, for half of the cost of constructing the BART-SFO
extension, the effects of increased fuel cost would have been
In 1995, the county's Civil Grand Jury reviewed all proposals and
urged SamTrans and Caltrain officials to invest in Caltrain and to
abandon the quixotic pursuit of BART-SFO/Millbrae [BATN: See summary:
grand jury was rebuffed and the Jerry Hills of the world won out.
Now these same officials would like to increase sales tax in San
Mateo County to the highest in the Bay Area to compensate for their
This disaster is man made. Let those same men find another solution,
and let us, the taxpayers, not forget those men who made this
Tom Dempsey lives in Portola Valley and was a member of the county's
1995 civil grand jury.
[BATN: See also:
Letter: BART-SFO extension proves to be financial disaster
Letter: Renegotiate catastrophically disastrous BART SFO deal
BART Millbrae extension losing $10m/year; Jerry Hill happy
SMCo. BART disaster: We told you so, in 1995