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
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
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.]