Column: Great SMCo. BART expectations not realized
- Published Thursday, August 4, 2005, in the Redwood City Daily News
Great transit expectations not realized
By Bil Paul
Other than cars, nothing has a larger transportation presence in
the Bay Area than BART, the 800-pound gorilla of public transit now
embedded in San Mateo County in the form of the airport extension.
Unfortunately, the partnership between BART and the San Mateo
County Transit District that resulted in the extension has soured
as SamTrans has had to heavily subsidize it.
SamTrans board chairman and county Supervisor Jerry Hill resolutely
says he fully expects the airport extension to turn a profit after
a few years, ending this drain on his budget.
However, it's unrealistic for SamTrans to expect its portion of
BART to pay for itself because, to my knowledge, virtually no
public transit in the Bay Area is self-supporting, including the
BART system as a whole, SamTrans buses, Caltrain and ferries.
BART has a long and colorful history. First conceived in the 1940s
and 50s, its original intent was to serve all six Bay Area counties
and provide a rail ring around the Bay. Political realities being
what they were, combined with the high cost of building an
innovative new system from the ground up, only Alameda, San
Francisco and Contra Costa counties teamed up to receive initial
BART service. In those counties, a portion of property and sales
taxes goes to help subsidize BART.
On the Peninsula, BART was built out as far as Daly City and Colma.
Beginning in the 1970s, the idea of an extension to San Francisco
International Airport (along with a connection to the Peninsula's
commuter rail line, Caltrain) was floated.
During the 1990s, the idea took shape as a line was planned with
stops in South San Francisco, San Bruno and Millbrae. Rather than
San Mateo becoming a full-fledged partner with the three other
counties of the system, and its residents having to pay tax
subsidies, SamTrans negotiated a deal for the airport extension
they thought was more advantageous.
SamTrans would loan BART money to help pay for the $1.5 billion
construction (the feds were paying half). Beyond that, SamTrans only
sunk several hundred thousand dollars into the project outright. "We
got the best deal," Jerry Hill says.
Because the Daly City and Colma stations at the end of the existing
line had high ridership numbers, were covering expenses well and
because ridership and expense projections for the extension were
good, SamTrans agreed to split any financial surpluses with BART,
but also agreed to be totally responsible for any deficits on the
new line, in exchange for an equal say in how the extension was run.
SamTrans may now regret making that decision.
A combination of factors threw water on the idea that the line would
actually make money.
First, the actual expenses of running the SFO line were much, much
higher than initially projected. (When asked if he thought SamTrans
had been deceived by BART, Jerry Hill replied, "That's a question
that's out there ... ."
Secondly, there were the dot.com bust and 9/11 impacts on employment.
Third, basic assumptions about ridership were flawed. I think
planners assumed that many Caltrain commuters would opt to transfer
to BART at the Millbrae transfer point, in order to be dropped
closer to their jobs in San Francisco.
Turns out that most Caltrain riders like their faster Caltrain trip
into the city, especially using the new bullet trains, and they
don't mind walking or taking a bus or light rail to their jobs.
Those spiffy new parking lots at BART stations in San Bruno and
South San Francisco have a lot of unfilled parking places.
As a result, SamTrans owes BART $13 million in subsidies this year
SamTrans, which is independent from county government finances,
therefore has a budget squeeze which may impact its bus and Caltrain
SamTrans, as an equal partner with BART, is trying to cut back on
its BART expenses. It has proposed closing the San Bruno and South
San Francisco stations on weekends, among other things. Also,
SamTrans has asked the airport to reduce the rent it charges on the
BART station there, and has been rebuffed. To increase revenues, all
trains using the extension now stop at the airport as well as at
BART spokesman Linton Johnson suggests the temptation to raise fares
and reduce service on the SFO extension to make it pay for itself
can reduce ridership and be self-defeating in the long run. He
thinks the line will keep posting increases in ridership and that
SamTrans needs to have patience.
Meanwhile, a similar scenario is being repeated in San Jose, where
a BART extension from Premont to that city is being planned. Here's
hoping the planners' projections will be more realistic for this
project, so the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority can cut
a deal that won't be harmful to its health.
And, as a letter to the editor in yesterday's Daily News indicates,
the BART deficits have become a political football as Lou Papan
criticizes Mike Nevin for being one of the architects of the BART
extension. Both are candidates for the same state senate seat being
vacated by Jackie Speier.
Readers can e-mail Bil Paul at <natural_born_writer@...>.
His column appears every Thursday in the Daily News.