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Comment: SamTrans divorces BART over failed SMCo. extension

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  • 2/12 San Mateo Journal
    Published Monday, February 12, 2007, by the San Mateo Daily News Comment The BART/SamTrans divorce By Sue Lempert As in many marriages of convenience, the
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 13 12:25 AM
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      Published Monday, February 12, 2007, by the San Mateo Daily News


      The BART/SamTrans divorce

      By Sue Lempert

      As in many marriages of convenience, the hoopla surrounding the BART
      extension to SFO and the coupling of SamTrans to the mighty transit
      giant has not turned out as expected.

      What was once considered to be a happy marriage has turned into
      broken promises, arguments over money and finally a divorce. The
      extension has drawn fewer riders than predicted and as a result an
      operating shortfall. SamTrans was stuck with the bill.

      Here's why: San Mateo County is not a part of the BART district and
      does not pay taxes directly into the system as do San Francisco,
      Contra Costa, and Alameda counties. Instead, the agreement which
      launched BART to SFO made SamTrans, the county's bus provider,
      responsible for the extension's operating costs and gave the county
      a say over scheduling. The profits expected from this venture were
      to pay for operating the system and to help fund BART to Warm
      Springs, a major step in creating BART to San Jose.

      When the extension started losing money, SamTrans was vulnerable.
      Continued payments to cover the deficit -- $5 million to $10 million
      a year -- would ultimately destroy the bus system. Hence, divorce
      and, of course, alimony. Alimony payments to BART will include
      $30 million of San Mateo County's Measure A transportation tax which
      voters renewed in 2004. This has already been approved.

      Ironically, when the sales tax measure was being put together for
      public review and comment, it included money for a study of the
      continuation of BART south of Millbrae. The public objected and the
      language was changed to allow up to 2 percent of the budget to be
      used to pay for BART services. That's the $30 million.

      In addition, SamTrans is expected to give BART a portion of its State
      Transit Assistance (STA), which amounts to approximately $800,000
      annually and $32 million from its share of Proposition 1B transit
      funds. BART will take over operation of the system and responsibility
      for covering all costs. SamTrans will be off the hook for the

      The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is supposed to
      sweeten the deal for BART by contributing $24 million of Proposition
      1B regional transit funds for BART to Warm Springs. BART must keep
      the Proposition 1B funds in a separate account to fund the ongoing
      operation of the airport extension and to complete the funding
      commitment of $145 million for BART to Warm Springs.

      It's complicated and several agencies need to officially sign off
      later in the month. But all involved acknowledge the marriage was
      not working and issues need to be resolved.

      BART to SFO was completed in June 2003. Similar to most major
      transportation projects, it wasn't easy, it cost much more than
      anticipated and it created controversy.

      The extension had powerful supporters in San Francisco, San Mateo
      County, and Washington, D.C. They included then state Sen. Quentin
      Kopp, San Mateo County supervisors Tom Huening. Tom Nolan and Mike
      Nevin, San Mateo City Councilman Jerry Hill, the Bay Area
      Congressional delegation, the Fang brothers (one was on the BART
      board of directors; the other the publisher of the Independent
      Newspaper Group); U.S. Senators Feinstein and Boxer and the
      Metropolitan Transportation Commission. MTC saw this as a major
      regional link to the major regional airport.

      The opponents included two former Burlingame councilmembers, Mike
      Spinelli and Marti Knight, a Burlingame businessman and train
      advocate, Bruce Balshone and Pam Rianda, former Belmont councilwoman.

      The opponents were not against the extension per se but preferred the
      original and less costly plan where an intermodal station across from
      the airport would connect Caltrain, BART, SamTrans and an airport
      light rail system.

      Kopp and others felt that for the extension to be successful and user
      friendly it should go directly to the airport. His view prevailed.

      The project included four new beautifully designed stations: at
      the airport, South San Francisco, San Bruno and Millbrae. It added
      8.7 miles of new railway; 6.1 miles of subway, 1.2 miles aerial and
      1.4 miles at grade. The cost: $1.5 billion plus. At the time it was
      expected that the classy new extension would be so successful it
      would bring in a profit.(Most transit systems need a subsidy).

      Spinelli, who testified in Washington against the plan, felt that
      the real beneficiary of the extension was San Francisco (thousands of
      tourists would flock to San Francisco hotels via BART) even though it
      was San Mateo County who had to pay. (East Bay residents who had been
      paying into the BART system for years thought San Mateo County was
      getting too good a deal).

      Opponents also raised questions about the optimistic ridership
      figures. To reach the goal which BART predicted, 80 percent of San
      Francisco-bound Caltrain riders were expected to get off at Millbrae
      and transfer to BART. Caltrain was very cooperative. It changed its
      schedules so its trains would meet BART trains at the Millbrae
      intermodal station.

      But Caltrain commuters stayed on the train because it was much
      faster. And to make matters worse, there were significant job losses
      when the Silicon Valley bubble burst. The terrorist attacks of Sept.
      11, 2001 reduced both domestic and foreign air travel. Ridership was
      low especially at the non-airport stops and SamTrans was stuck with
      the costs.

      Meanwhile in another twist, then-state Sen. Jackie Speier was looking
      for a transportation bill to help her district. She considered
      legislation to put San Mateo County on the BART board, but resistance
      to joining BART and paying its required sales and property taxes was
      strong. Instead her staff and Caltrain/SamTrans staffer Howard Goode
      (who once worked for BART) came up with the idea of a Caltrain
      express. Speier asked for $127 million for some passing tracks,
      then-Gov. Gray Davis liked the idea, and the Baby Bullet was born.

      The bullet trains have dramatically increased Caltrain's revenues
      and ridership in the past few years and put to rest the notion that
      BART's entry into San Mateo County would kill Caltrain.

      Even more important, Caltrain and SamTrans had hired a new executive
      director, Mike Scanlon, who refused to be bullied by BART. He refused
      to pay the continuing high payments for revenue deficits, pointing
      out that BART had way overestimated future ridership. Court cases
      were threatened and MTC stepped in to mediate the dispute. Having two
      transit agencies fight legal battles was no way to win additional
      state and federal funds for the area.

      Currently, the airport extension has a 70 percent fare box return and
      carries more than 30,000 daily customers. The original premise that
      it would carry 50,000 daily passengers, require no subsidy and would
      turn a profit was overly optimistic. With hindsight it is hard to
      believe it was so readily accepted.

      In the future it is believed that the extension will continue to
      gain new riders as the economy and service improves. BART has the
      incentive to make that happen.

      SamTrans can now devote its energies and revenue to reinventing its
      bus system so it better serves its users.

      BART to San Jose on this side of the Bay is not in the crystal ball.
      A faster and improved Caltrain is.

      BART to San Jose on the east side of the Bay still has a long way
      to go. It must convince federal and regional authorities that it is
      a cost-effective project with achievable ridership goals. We should
      learn a lesson from the marriage and divorce of BART/SamTrans over
      the airport extension. But for the sake of "the children" let's move

      Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every
      Monday. She can be reached at sue@...

      [BATN: See also:

      SMCo. to quietly blow up to $30m to keep BART SFO running

      Despite successes, Caltrain faces $5.3m deficit, tough choices

      Caltrain ridership booms to all-time (143 years) record high

      BART ridership to SFO fails to take off

      Yet another MTC giveaway to failed BART Millbrae boondoggle

      Nevin lost support due to role in SMCo. BART extension disaster

      Letter: BART-SFO extension proves to be financial disaster

      Letter: Renegotiate catastrophically disastrous BART SFO deal

      Tax funds up, but SamTrans, Caltrain still suffer BART burden

      SamTrans faces $25m budget deficit, partly due to BART subsidy

      BART to Millbrae a flaming failure -- gee, who could've guessed?

      BART and MTC discuss Millbrae extension loan repayment

      MTC calls in $60m loan for MTC-backed BART-Millbrae fiasco

      BART awaits final federal payment for SFO extension

      Millbrae BART remains a dead zone

      BART to cut service, hike fares on failed Millbae extension

      SamTrans to halve peak BART service, keep stations open weekends

      BART still seeking to bankrupt SamTrans, gut Caltrain service

      Was SFO/Millbrae BART extension worth the cost?

      Column: SamTrans defict linked to BART; board unaccountable

      Letter: SamTrans must not starve bus system for BART

      Letter: SamTrans must re-focus on buses, not BART subsidies

      Letter: "Boss" [Mike] Nevin bungled SMCo. transit finances

      Comment: Poor SMCo. transit leadership has brought crisis

      Comment: SMCo. BART disaster killing Caltrain, SamTrans

      $1.7b SMCo. BART extension still plagued with problems

      MTC still defends fraudulent BART SFO/Millbrae predictions

      etc., etc., etc.]
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