SamTrans, BART seek to escape disastrous agreement with SFO
- Published Wednesday, June 29, 2005, in the San Francisco Examiner
Agencies ask SFO for leniency
Airport officials will negotiate, but future deal unlikely
By Ethan Fletcher and Nat Friedland
The tone between officials from San Francisco International Airport
and two transit agencies has turned icy regarding millions of dollars
in annual payments.
The heads of SamTrans and BART have been exchanging increasingly
chilly correspondence with Airport Commission President Larry Mazzola,
over their desire to discuss reducing their annual $2.5 million
payments to the airport -- SFO calls the payments rent on the
airport's BART station, while SamTrans says it is repayment for SFO's
original contribution to the project. Copies of the letters obtained
by The Examiner show a first cordial tone dissolve into accusations of
veiled threats and unprofessional behavior.
[Speaking of grossly unprofessional behavior, BATN notes that the
"negotiations" between Caltrain and BART -- conducted by the same
individual on both sides of the table acting as a BART employee and
then as a "former" BART employee!!! -- lead to a $0.7 million annual
"rent" paid by Caltrain to BART to be allowed to use two strips of
concrete platform in Millbrae, at the same location as a formerly
rent-free Caltrain station and possessing the same "charm" and
"amenities" as the formerly rent-free Caltrain station. To add to
it, the same "negotiations" resulted also in Caltrain effectively
losing control of much of its right of way in Millbrae and San Bruno,
leading to hundreds of millions of dollars of extra constuction costs
for needed grade separations. The $2.5 million rent for the BART SFO
station seems like a bargain in comparison. BATN once again salutes
the gross incompetence and deep-rooted corruption of the Bay Area's
At issue is whether the transit agencies can reduce their annual
payments to SFO in light of their recent financial woes -- both BART
and SamTrans had to deal with budget deficits in the tens of millions
of dollars this year. Because the BART extension came online in the
midst of the post-Sept. 11 recession, ridership and revenue have
failed dramatically to live up to original projections.
Thus, SamTrans, which subsidizes BART's Peninsula service, has had to
pay around $10 million annually to bridge BART's operating deficits --
something they are trying to eliminate within three years.
Earlier this year, SamTrans board Chair Jerry Hill and BART board
President Joel Keller requested a meeting with Mazzola to discuss BART
operations to the airport, including lowering their annual payments.
After Mazzola rebuffed their request, the two directors wrote another
letter June 2, stating they were "deeply troubled" at his
unwillingness to meet, and included what the airport commissioner took
as a veiled threat to discontinue service to SFO.
While he agreed to a meeting -- which will likely not happen until
BART's labor negotiations are concluded -- Mazzola ended his letter by
stating, "Threats and derision are not my style of public service.
But please know that I will engage on your level if necessary."
Mazzola could not be reached for comment; however, SFO spokesman Mike
McCarron reiterated the commission president's position in his letter
that the rents should not be reduced. He pointed out that through a
surcharge on SFO/BART riders, the airport station actually generated
$1.2 million more than the $2.5 million annual payments.
However, Hill argued that SFO renegotiated their leases with airlines
and airport tenants in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, and
their agencies [SamTrans and BART] should be granted the same
"Our goal is to meet the financial challenges of SamTrans by reducing
our costs of running trains into SFO," Hill said. "It is imperative
to negotiate a more favorable agreement."
Meanwhile, SamTrans and BART also disagree about which agency is
currently responsible for paying the $2.5 million to SFO, with Keller
saying the bottom line is that money is tight these days.
"You ever played hot potato?" he said. "Well no one wants to grab
this potato, not BART, not SamTrans, not the airport."