BART, SamTrans mired in distrust over SFO debacle
- Published Sunday, March 21, 2004, in the Contra Costa Times
SamTrans, BART mired in distrust
By Lisa Vorderbrueggen
Contra Costa Times
As far as the public could see, the two agencies at the helm of
the long-awaited, $1.5 billion BART extension to the San Francisco
Airport had a happy union.
But behind closed doors, BART and SamTrans have a dysfunctional
marriage that threatens to unravel. The dispute has led one BART
director to revive calls for unifying the Bay Area's numerous transit
The agencies' staffs and elected leaders have been quarreling
bitterly over operating costs, fares, parking policies and nearly
every other issue associated with the 9-month-old line.
The battle finally spilled into the public spotlight earlier this
month. BART threatened to sue SamTrans over mounting, unpaid bills,
and SamTrans accused BART of failing to control skyrocketing costs.
The revelation startled riders who fear service on the fledgling line
will dwindle. Others worry paying those costs will drain dollars from
BART's cash-strapped budget or force cuts in SamTrans' bus or
Whether any of that happens hinges on the negotiating skills of the
Bay Area's regional transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan
Commission staffers will host mediation sessions over the next 30
days, where they hope to keep the agencies out of court and restore
public confidence in the new line.
With emotions and rhetoric at a fever pitch in both camps, commission
spokesman Randy Rentschler called for calm.
"Look, there's no doubt there will be service on the line and
decent service on the line," Rentschler said. "This is a long-term
investment and we need to look at it that way. Admittedly, we've
gotten off to a rocky start, but there is plenty of room to make
Those rocks look more like mountains. Both sides describe an
adversarial climate clouded in frustration and distrust.
"It has been an extremely frustrating couple of years while I have
endeavored to negotiate with BART," said SamTrans' chief Mike
Scanlon. "They are either unwilling or unable to consider that
someone other than themselves could have a legitimate position.
It's this 'father knows best' attitude."
BART has jumped through every hoop that SamTrans tossed in its
direction and nothing was good enough, countered BART Director
Dan Richard of Walnut Creek.
"BART has done every damned thing they have asked," Richard
said. "This is just part of a larger campaign by SamTrans to muscle
themselves a better deal at the expense of the rest of BART."
The two transit agencies became partners in 1990 when they signed
a contract that spelled out how they would jointly build, fund and
operate the line.
SamTrans did agree to cover the operating costs, including deficits.
But everyone in this deal clearly envisioned profits, not red ink.
Planners projected this line would make money because it would
attract large numbers to its link with an international airport and
the Silicon Valley.
It was an incredibly optimistic assumption. No mass transit service
anywhere in the country generates profits, and in fact, most require
significant taxpayer subsidies.
But BART and SamTrans banked so heavily on the projections that
neither agency had a contingency funding plan.
Instead, the contract hands out promised profits to repay loans and
help build other extensions. The deal awards SamTrans $72 million in
profits as repayment for a construction loan to BART, while BART
receives $145 million in profits to help pay for the Warm Springs
SamTrans and BART expected any deficit would be short-lived.
A provision in the 1996 contract amendment states that if "operating
surpluses are not realized in any year, SamTrans and BART will meet
for the purpose of implementing modifications of fares and/or service
levels and of developing new revenues sources to enable the (line) to
generate net operating surpluses."
None of these assumptions panned out.
The anticipated crush of riders failed to materialize and the deficit
swelled. And despite a contract that requires cooperation, BART and
SamTrans have been unable to stop the bleeding.
Nine months after the line opened, it attracts only half the riders
that planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission projected.
The agencies blame the recession and heavy Bay Area job losses, but
transportation experts admit that ridership projections are an
inexact science based on numerous variables subject to fluctuation.
The gap between what passengers pay to ride and operating costs for
the new line has soared to $22 million a year, more than three times
what BART initially advised SamTrans.
BART staff members project deficits will continue at least for the
next several years. No one knows when, or if, the line will pay for
"That is, perhaps, the fatal flaw that is contributing to a whole lot
of this frustration," Scanlon said. "Based on my many years in this
business, I doubt this line will ever produce a surplus."
Scanlon said he became deeply concerned about costs before the line
SamTrans' contract with BART included an escape clause that would
have allowed the Peninsula agency to walk away.
But SamTrans' board voted to stay in early 2002, and at the time,
BART estimated the total bill to run the line at $29 million the
first year. Fares would cover all the costs except $6.4 million,
which SamTrans agreed to pay.
Within a few months of that vote, BART's cost estimates to run the
service jumped to $42 million, and SamTrans' share followed suit,
The dispute escalated, too.
One month before the line opened, SamTrans still had not formally
agreed to the service levels that BART planned to run.
"Pragmatically, we knew the line needed to open, so we told them, 'Go
ahead,' but the understanding was quite clear that if the ridership
didn't develop, that we would promptly take action to adjust service
levels," Scanlon said.
BART did not adjust service until February 2004, which saved $2
million, an action Scanlon called grossly inadequate and unresponsive.
"They have an attitude that they are absolutely right and anybody
that doesn't conform is a misfortunate soul," Scanlon said. "BART
thinks the contract means they just have to meet with us and not do
anything. That's not negotiation."
But BART leaders paint a far different picture.
They describe SamTrans as parochial and quick to cast blame, but
unwilling to try any of BART's ideas that could bring in more riders.
Richard said SamTrans staff insisted on charging for parking and
levying a surcharge on Peninsula riders, both against BART's advice.
SamTrans also refused to consider a common monthly pass for BART and
"SamTrans continues to underprice CalTrain tickets, so people have no
incentive to use BART even if it would be more convenient," Richard
said. "SamTrans says BART promised them no deficits, but SamTrans
plays a major role in whether that happens. They have to step up to
their responsibilities and stop acting like this isn't their problem,
SamTrans' actions provide a strong case for why the Bay Area should
consolidate its transit agencies, Richard added.
"We have too many transit agencies duplicating too much service that
requires public subsidy in a region that's desperate for more
service," Richard said. "Meanwhile, politicians don't want to put up
operating money. They just want to cut ribbons even though they have
no funds to pay the operating costs.
"We have to look at effective, regional transportation policy and to
do that, something fundamentally has to change."
Scanlon vehemently denied that his agency rejected BART's ideas, and
said that SamTrans has tentatively agreed to cancel parking fees and
will study the concept of a common ticket.
But SamTrans will never increase CalTrain fares just to make BART
more attractive, he said.
"The people of San Mateo County did not vote for a sales tax (to
support CalTrain and other services) to have BART dominate," Scanlon
said. "We have a huge county with needs on the coast, the hills and
in the south."
SamTrans plans to ask voters in November to extend the county's half-
cent transportation sales tax. It includes $24 million for BART over
the 30-year measure.
Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers transportation and land-use. Reach her at
925-945-4773 or lvorderb@...