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Column: Great SMCo. BART expectations not realized

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  • 8/4 Redwood City Daily
    Published Thursday, August 4, 2005, in the Redwood City Daily News Column Great transit expectations not realized By Bil Paul Other than cars, nothing has a
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 4, 2005
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      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's beginnings

      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.

      Reality check

      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.
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