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BART, SamTrans mired in distrust over SFO debacle

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  • 3/21 Contra Costa Times
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 22 12:30 PM
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      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
      agencies.

      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
      CalTrain service.

      Whether any of that happens hinges on the negotiating skills of the
      Bay Area's regional transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan
      Transportation Commission.

      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
      this work."

      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
      extension.

      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
      itself.

      "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
      even opened.

      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,
      Scanlon said.

      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
      CalTrain.

      "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,
      too."

      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@...
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