SamTrans crisis looms amid BART deficits, falling ridership
- Published Thursday, July 27, 2006, by the San Francisco Examiner
SamTrans struggles with fiscal woes
By Edward Carpenter
San Carlos -- Faced with faltering ridership figures at a time when
many transit agencies, such as Caltrain and BART, are experiencing
growth, San Mateo County's bus operator is looking for new sources
of revenue and ways to remake its service over the long run,
according to officials.
To come up with feasible alternatives for turning the agency around,
officials expect to form a subcommittee to probe potential cost-
cutting measures and alternative revenue sources, San Mateo County
Transit District spokesman spokesman Jonah Weinberg said. While
board members couldn't say with certainty what options will be on
the table, an additional sales tax, a radical remaking of service,
fare hikes and service cuts are likely to be discussed, officials
Whether a makeover would be along the lines of Caltrain's successful
Baby Bullet services, which increased express trains at the expense
of local service, isn't clear, Samtrans board member and county
Supervisor Jerry Hill said.
"I would think that with the cost of gas [so high], people would be
jumping on the buses," Hill said.
That isn't the case, however. In spite of an improving economy and
ballooning fuel costs, average bus ridership during the week dropped
slightly to 46,946 last year, compared with 47,062 in fiscal 2004-05.
After closing a $25 million gap in its annual 2006-07 budget last
month, the board is poised to take on the even bigger problem of
how to return the agency to a profitable business, officials said.
SamTrans' total expenses exceeded revenue by $7 million last year,
and without additional income, cuts in service could be inevitable.
"The current situation is that, 30 years ago, SamTrans started
operating a bus company with a half-cent sales tax. Since then,
it has taken on a variety of different expenses," Weinberg said.
This year, those expenses include nearly $13 million to provide bus
service to the disabled, $16 million to help operate Caltrain and
$5 million for BART service in the county, according to a report by
Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington.
Meanwhile, SamTrans still is running off the same half-cent sales
tax, which isn't enough, Weinberg said.
"Anyone that drives on our freeways today realizes that we have to
come up with an alternative," Hill said.
SamTrans lays much of the blame for the ongoing deficit at the feet
of BART. Ridership on the extension to San Francisco International
-- including stations in South San Francisco, San Bruno and
Millbrae -- has fallen far short of original projections.
BART has defended the original projects, saying it never could have
predicted the economic downturn of a couple years ago, nor the drop
in air travel due to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Forecasts of 33,000 trips on average weekdays at the Millbrae
station by 2010 are far from the current 6,400. Because of an
agreement between SamTrans and BART to share the expense, the lack
of riders and, therefore, revenue have forced the bus agency to
subsidize the cost of BART into the tens of millions since service
BART ridership on the Peninsula extension increased by 2.6 percent
last year over fiscal 2004-05.