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SamTrans crisis looms amid BART deficits, falling ridership

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  • 7/27 SF Examiner
    Published Thursday, July 27, 2006, by the San Francisco Examiner SamTrans struggles with fiscal woes By Edward Carpenter ecarpenter@examiner.com San Carlos --
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 28 12:41 PM
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      Published Thursday, July 27, 2006, by the San Francisco Examiner

      SamTrans struggles with fiscal woes

      By Edward Carpenter
      ecarpenter@...

      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
      said.

      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
      began.

      BART ridership on the Peninsula extension increased by 2.6 percent
      last year over fiscal 2004-05.
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